The All India Muslim Personal Law Board ended its three-day long 25th annual general meeting in Kolkata on Sunday evening by adopting a resolution to set up a women’s wing. It will be headed by Azma Zehra, a social activist and an executive committee member of the board, and will address issues concerning Muslim women such as triple talaq, domestic disputes and education.

This move comes at a time the Muslim community in India is facing mounting criticism from within and without to end the practice of triple talaq – or instantaneous divorce, which can be pronounced only by men – as well as polygamy. It also comes amid a debate in the country on the proposed Uniform Civil Code, which seeks to replace all scripture-based personal laws with a legislation that is binding on all citizens.

In a statement, the board members acknowledged that during its annual general meeting, “triple talaq and polygamy continued to remain the focal point amongst the participants within the house and outside the house”.

According to the Board, the women’s wing will be technologically savvy and aim to reach out to distressed Muslim women in every nook and corner of the country. Towards this aim, the Board said it has decided to set up a toll-free national helpline for Muslim women in distress, which will have Urdu – and English-speaking counsellors on call. The helpline will have eight other regional language options.

Zehra, speaking soon after her election as the convenor of the women’s wing, reiterated the board’s line. “We have been overwhelmed by the response from Muslim women in the face of the Central government’s hidden agenda of interfering in Islamic laws dealing with Muslim women, and trying to bring in the Uniform Civil Code through the back door,” she said.

Personal law

The Board also passed a resolution that said that the Union government was infringing upon the community’s personal laws.

Though Maulana Wali Rahamani, the powerful general secretary of the Muslim law body, tacitly admitted that there might have been some cases of misuse of the triple talaq provision, he said that those were exceptions, and not the rule.

The Supreme Court is in the process of hearing a number of petitions challenging the practice of triple talaq and seeking a ban on it for being discriminatory. On October 7, the Centre told the court via an affidavit that the “validity of triple talaq and polygamy should be seen in light of gender justice”, and that triple talaq, polygamy and nikaah halala (a practice that allows a divorced Muslim woman to return to her first husband only after marrying another man, consummating the marriage and then divorcing him) “were not integral to the practices of Islam or essential religious practices”.

In its resolution, the Board said it was a matter of regret that the Union government had filed the affidavit before the Supreme Court despite the fact that it had approached Prime Minister Narendra Modi and five other Cabinet ministers to first listen to its views. The Board demanded that the government respect the sentiments of Muslims and withdraw its affidavit from the apex court.

Trinamool backing

At the conference, the Board claimed that it had been working for social reforms amongst the Muslim community by advising community members to follow the Shariah (Muslim personal law) properly and use the model nikahnamah for nikah (wedding), which would be beneficial for both men and women.

The Muslim law body also decided to set up more Darul Qazas, or Islamic courts that hear civil disputes particularly in the domain of matrimonial law, for the speedy disposal of cases. According to the Board, a dedicated team of advocates will also work at the level of High Courts to assist Muslim women seeking relief in family disputes.

More than 75 women delegates and 50 women members were said to have participated and given their suggestions at the meeting. All the women who participated, significantly, were in agreement with the Board’s primarily male leadership that has been insisting that the Union government is trying to interfere in the “holy laws of Islam” using the alleged plight of Muslim women as an excuse.

The ruling Trinamool Congress put all its weight behind the event. Several Trinamool Congress ministers, MPs and MLAs were present at the huge rally held after the conference. Top Trinamool leaders told the Board members that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had not only sent her blessings but her assurances that the state government will never support a Uniform Civil Code as it respects personal laws guiding different religious practices.