Personal law

Draupadi and sati: How politicians and clerics hijacked Muslim women’s fight against triple talaq

The recent cacophony over the practice of unilateral, instantaneous divorce among the Muslim community has pushed women’s voices to the sidelines.

If beef and cows were the political flavour of the season up until last week, that position has now been hijacked by the controversy over triple talaq. In the past few days, everyone from the prime minister to the Hindu Mahasabha and various Muslim clerics have valiantly stepped forward to save the oppressed Muslim woman from the practice of instantaneous divorce, which can be pronounced only by men.

Since October 2016, when the National Law Commission released a questionnaire to seek public opinion on a Uniform Civil Code – which seeks to replace all scripture-based personal laws with a legislation that is binding on all citizens – the debate around triple talaq has inevitably turned into a debate on Muslim personal laws, eliciting strong reactions from almost all quarters of the minority community.

Now, with a Supreme Court constitutional bench scheduled to hear petitions on triple talaq from May 11, voices both defending and decrying Sharia laws on divorce – all in the name of rescuing Muslim women – are likely to get louder.

Predictably, in the cacophony of grand statements being made every day on triple talaq, the voices and agency of Muslim women have once again been relegated to the sidelines.

A political game

Triple talaq – a practice in which a Muslim husband can unilaterally divorce his wife by merely uttering the word “talaq” (divorce) three times in one go – has captivated national headlines since February 2016, when triple talaq victim Shayara Bano sought a ban on the practice on the grounds that it violates a woman’s Constitutional right to equality before the law. Her Supreme Court petition also demands a ban on polygamy and nikah halala, a practice that forces a divorced Muslim woman to consummate and break a second marriage if she wants to get back with her first husband.

Shayara Bano’s case has now been clubbed with several other similar petitions by Muslim women and organisations. In October, the Union government submitted an affidavit to the court taking a firm stand against triple talaq. Meanwhile, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which claims to represent Sunni Muslims across India, has defended the practice on the grounds that Muslim personal law falls outside the realm of the judiciary.

While the court’s stand is yet to be determined, the public debate around triple talaq has become a game of political one-upmanship over who is the best saviour of Muslim women. In the past five days alone, a string of proclamations have hit the headlines:

‘Muslim sisters need saving’: On Sunday, while addressing the Bharatiya Janata Party national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised triple talaq as an unjust practice and claimed that “Muslim sisters” needed to be “saved from injustice”. The problem of triple talaq needed to be solved through dialogue and not conflict, he said.

‘Like Draupadi’s cheerharan’: If Modi’s statements were relatively muted, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath chimed in with a more dramatic proclamation on Monday. Likening
the practice of triple talaq to the disrobing of Draupadi in the Mahabharata, he declared that “mute spectators” of the injustice were just as guilty as the perpetrators.

‘Just like sati’: While triple talaq is largely practiced among India’s Sunni Muslims, the All India Shia Personal Law Board added its voice to the debate on Monday, asking the Union government to frame a strict law
against triple talaq similar to the law against sati.

‘Join Hinduism’: On April 14, the Hindu Mahasabha organised a “havan” with two Muslim women – allegedly victims of triple talaq – in Aligarh. At the event, the Mahasabha’s general secretary, Pooja Shakun Pandey, promised victims of triple talaq that they would get justice and protection if they returned to the fold of Hinduism.

Social boycott: On Sunday, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board – which had told the Supreme Court in September that triple talaq is better than murdering one’s wife – came forward to project itself as the true protector of wronged Muslim women. The Board announced that instantaneous triple talaq is valid under Sharia laws but is still wrong, and that those who misuse the talaq provisions by arbitrarily divorcing their wives would face a social boycott.

Surveys and signatures: On April 13, Adityanath ordered the Uttar Pradesh Women’s Welfare Department to conduct a survey of Muslim women and collect their opinions and stories on triple talaq, to be presented in court.

On the same day, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board submitted to the Law Commission a survey of its own: a petition against the Uniform Civil Code, bearing the signatures of 4.8 crore Muslim men and women. Intended as a counter to the Commission’s public questionnaire on the Uniform Civil Code, the petition states that the signatories are strongly against any kind of change in Islamic Shariat laws on marriage, divorce or heritage. The Board claimed that the petition represented the views of a quarter of India’s Muslim population, with more than half the signatories – 2.7 crore – being women.

A cause appropriated

For the Muslim women at the heart of the movement against unilateral, instantaneous divorce, this noise around triple talaq and a Uniform Civil Code is nothing but an attempt by political elements to appropriate a women’s cause.

“The credit for raising this movement goes entirely to the women themselves,” said Zakia Soman, co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a non-profit organisation that is one of the petitioners demanding a ban on triple talaq.

When various Muslim women began working on the cause, no help came from any of the voices who are now in the headlines for their views on triple talaq, said Soman. “Now that the movement has been created, it is in the nature of our democracy that so many people are riding piggy-back on it, trying to further their own agendas,” she said.

While Soman described the Law Commission’s public questionnaire on the Uniform Civil Code as ill-timed, most women in the movement against triple talaq blame the All India Muslim Personal Law Board for conflating the issue with the Uniform Civil Code. “They know they cannot defend triple talaq, so they have turned this into a defence of personal laws in general,” said Soman.

The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and other Muslim women’s groups have, for years, stated that they would prefer a formal codification of Muslim personal law instead of a Uniform Civil Code. “None of this takes away from the fact that what we have right now is a historic movement,” said Soman.

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