There were no women visible in the packed Exhibition Grounds in Hyderabad on Sunday night. Ironic, considering that the occasion was a meeting called by the Tahaffuz-e-Shariat Conference, to protect the Shariat, which, in India, refers to Muslim Personal Law. Under it come issues such as marriage, divorce, maintenance and inheritance – all of which have as much to do with women as with men.

Apparently, women were present. Halfway through the five-hour-long meeting, a speaker requested women to sit wherever they could, as the women’s enclosure was full. But where were these women? Invisible, as befitted their status, according to the organisers of the meeting. Though the All India Muslim Personal Law Board has a Hyderabadi woman as its member, the organisers did not think even her fit enough to be invited as a speaker.

This was hardly surprising. The chief organiser of the meeting – Mohammed Mushtaq Mallik, who runs a body called the Tehreek Muslim Shabban in Hyderabad – had declared soon after its founding in 1997, that burqa-clad women could not go to cinemas as “the burqa symbolises Islamic culture and someone indulging in unIslamic acts while wearing it is intolerable”.

As for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, its members have never shown any concern for women, though, right now, they are going after women to sign their forms against reform in Muslim Personal Law. In Hyderabad’s Muslim areas, these forms are being handed out at kirana stores to women customers.

In support of Shariat

Sunday’s meeting was a good illustration of the nature of the current campaign against both reform in Muslim Personal Law, and the proposed Uniform Civil Code, which seeks to replace all scripture-based personal laws with a legislation that is binding on all citizens. These are two separate issues, and Muslim women supporting reform in personal law are against a Uniform Civil Code. But Muslim male leaders have combined both issues into one.

The political parties represented at Sunday’s conference have followed their lead. Again, not for the first time. In 1985, the Supreme Court, in its Shah Bano judgment, upheld the right of a Muslim divorcee to lifelong alimony under a secular law. On the insistence of the male Muslim leadership, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government enacted a law – the Muslim Women’s Protection of Rights on Divorce Act, 1986 – aimed at depriving Muslim women of such lifelong alimony. No party objected except the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Three decades later, in Hyderabad, Congressman Mohammed Ali Shabbir, leader of the Opposition in Telengana, proudly referred to that Act and declared that the Congress had never allowed any change in the Shariat, and would never do so.

But other parties were also represented that night. The ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi was represented by no less a person than deputy Chief Minister Mohammed Mahmood Ali. Then there was the Janata Dal (Secular), and even the Communist Party of India.

The dais was overloaded with Ulema (Muslim clergymen) and politicians, and everyone, of course, had to take the microphone. The audience hardly reacted to the speeches, except to follow orders from the stage to shout the slogan “Jaan se pyari hamari Shariat [Our Shariat is dearer than life].” A speaker would say: “Jaan se pyari…”, and the audience would complete the slogan, shouting: “…hamari Shariat”.

Here too women remained invisible – no feminine voice was heard shouting this slogan. Journalists in the press row, however, joined in enthusiastically.

What brought the silent audience to life was a speech by Congressman B Narayan Rao from Karnataka, known to be a leader of Other Backward Classes. Immune to all reminders that he had exceeded his time limit, Rao sang paeans to Islam and rubbished Hinduism. There were murmurs of appreciation when he began his speech in the Islamic way, by reciting the phrase “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim [In the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate].” But the crowd went wild when he told them that they were so lucky to have been born Muslim, as had they been born as so-called “untouchables”, they would have been crushed under Brahmin boots. Addressing Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “Wazir-e-Azam’’, Rao asked: “Who are you to give justice to our women? Are you bigger than the Quran?”

The 10,000-strong crowd roared religious slogans. Rao, a self-confessed Ambedkar follower, advised his audience to first acquire religious education, saying secular education could wait.

Male bonding

Sunday’s meeting left no doubt that women’s fight for equality hardly matters to the so-called secular parties – they prefer to bond with the most conservative Muslim leadership. A few Muslim speakers hinted at the ills within their own community. The Jamaat-e-Islami chief, Hamed Mohamamed Khan, even admonished the All India Muslim Personal Law Board for doing nothing in the 30 years since the Shah Bano judgment to spread awareness among uneducated Muslims about the proper procedure for talaq (divorce). He suggested a mandatory pre-marital exam on personal law for all Muslims. Former Aligarh Muslim University student leader Nazar Abbas severely criticised the sectarianism and violence among Muslims and their growing tendency to declare one another as kaafirs or unbelievers.

But all this was drowned out in the unanimous opposition to any change in Muslim Personal Law.

Such change coming from the Bharatiya Janata Party can be understood as unacceptable. But what if it came from the courts? The Supreme Court is hearing a number of petitions against the practice of triple talaq – instantaneous divorce, which can be pronounced only by men – filed by Muslim women across the country.

If the Supreme Court does hold triple talaq invalid, said Mufti Manzoor Zeai, a regular on television shows, “We’ll trample its order under our shoes. Today we are organising meetings, tomorrow we will be on the streets.”

The audience erupted.