Personal law

Understanding triple talaq (and domestic violence) through the stories of three Muslim women

Can the practice of unilateral divorce among some Muslims be confronted without looking at societal norms that make women stay in abusive marriages?

On May 11, more than a year after Shayara Bano sought a ban on the Muslim practice of triple talaq, drawing national and political attention to the issue, the Supreme Court bench will finally begin hearing petitions arguing for and against this form of instantaneous, unilateral divorce that can be pronounced only by men.

The movement against triple talaq was started by Muslim women’s organisations and women who felt wronged by the practice. But during the course of the year, politicians, clerics and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, an NGO that claims to represent the community, have vociferously taken over the debate, in the name of protecting oppressed Muslim women.

But how are individual Muslim women – those who have received triple talaq – engaging with this high-pitched debate? Opponents of triple talaq tend to club all Muslim women as victims trapped by the patriarchy of Muslim personal laws. Defenders of triple talaq emphasise their Muslim identities while declaring, for instance, that 2.7 crore Muslim women do not want changes to Sharia law.

But is it fair to categorise all Muslim women as a homogenous entity? spoke to three women in Mumbai who had been affected by triple talaq and found that their perspectives on the divorce mechanism are varied, complex and often problematic.

All three women had arranged marriages and subsequently experienced extreme forms of domestic violence, but none of them sought divorce themselves. Their stories, in fact, are no different from those of many other domestic violence survivors in India and raise a crucial question: should one look at triple talaq without simultaneously confronting the deeper-rooted problems of gender-based violence and the societal attitudes that make women stay in abusive marriages?

‘Who made the Personal Law Board anyway?’

On the night of her wedding in September 2014, Gausiya Ahmed’s in-laws snatched away her mehr, the money paid to a Muslim bride by the groom. The dowry harassment began soon after, and on multiple occasions, Gausiya was almost beaten to death. Even though she was a Unani doctor, she was not allowed to work. She got pregnant, but the violence still didn’t stop.

“Throughout the pregnancy, they kept telling me that they would accept only a boy child,” said Gausiya, a petite 28-year-old from Bhiwandi, a town North of Mumbai. In August 2015, when Gausiya’s daughter was born, her husband stormed out of the hospital and never showed up again. Two months later, she received a divorce notice. “A lawyer came with a written notice saying ‘talaq’ three times, but I don’t accept this divorce,” she said. “It wasn’t even oral talaq, and anyway, how can he just wash his hands off his wife and child in one shot?”

Gausiya Ahmed on her wedding day.
Gausiya Ahmed on her wedding day.

Gausiya consulted several priests and mullas, who gave conflicting opinions on whether her divorce was valid. Outraged, Gausiya approached the police. “But when the police tried to tell my husband that triple talaq is invalid, his family brought Sharia books to defend themselves,” she said. It took two weeks of persistence for the police to finally file domestic violence and dowry harassment complaints. Her cases are still pending 18 months later.

Meanwhile, her husband has also filed for a civil divorce at the Family Court. “This is absurd because we never had a civil marriage to begin with, but it shows that even he is not convinced that the triple talaq he gave me is valid,” said Gausiya.

It is this confusion within the Muslim community that has convinced Gausiya about the need to ban triple talaq. “The Sharia is being misused and if mullas themselves disagree about its interpretations, then we women need to be under Indian law, not Sharia law,” she said.

The litigation against triple talaq has brought out the firebrand in Gausiya and she now declares that she does not accept the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. “Half the Muslim population does not accept the Board anymore,” she said. “Who made them the Board anyway? They just incite people and they don’t want women to get religious education, because if women knew all of this, they would never marry.”

All Gausiya wants, she said, are her basic rights as a wife and mother. If her divorce is deemed valid, she wants her husband to pay her a sufficient maintenance. If the Supreme Court strikes down triple talaq, she wants him to give Gausiya and her daughter a roof over their heads. “I know it is risky, but I don’t even mind living with him again,” she said.

For now, Gausiya is financially dependent on her younger sister, an engineer. And none of her three sisters plan to get married till the Supreme Court is out with its final verdict on triple talaq. “After my experience, they don’t trust Muslim men anymore, so they are waiting for some legal safeguards,” said Gausiya, seething with anger once again. “All those Muslim women who support the Personal Law Board’s stand on triple talaq – are they going to step out and give me a roof over my head?”

‘I don’t want a divorce – I still love him’

In the 20 years since her wedding, Zeenat Sheikh has lost count of the number of times she almost committed suicide. Each time, the thought of her two daughters held her back, but Zeenat squarely blames her husband for fragile mental condition.

In 1997, at the age of 19, Zeenat had an arranged marriage with a businessman and moved to Mumbai from her hometown in Kerala. Her husband imposed endless restrictions on her – she was not allowed to step out of the house or keep the windows open and received a beating if she ever argued – but it took years of physical and emotional trauma for Zeenat to realise that things were terribly wrong with her marriage.

Zeenat Sheikh at her home in Mumbai. Photo: Aarefa Johari
Zeenat Sheikh at her home in Mumbai. Photo: Aarefa Johari

“In the last six years, his violence grew particularly bad,” said Zeenat, now 40. “Then in 2014, he suddenly said, main tujhe talaq doonga – talaq, talaq, talaq.” I will divorce you, he had said. A distraught Zeenat rushed to a maulvi and was relieved to know she had been saved by grammar: the priest assured her that the talaq was invalid, since her husband had used the future tense.

After this episode, however, Zeenat’s condition worsened. “He now began to beat me like I wasn’t even human,” she said. In November 2016, after a particularly violent episode, Zeenat wrote a suicide note for her family and left the house. “But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t kill myself, and instead spent three days on the streets or inside dargahs,” she said. “When they found me, the police tried to explain to me that this was my fault, that I should bear what happens at home. They told me to call the 103 helpline only if it happens again.”

Zeenat now found herself back home at the mercy of her husband. In December 2016, as he threw her to the ground and rained kicks on her, he carefully uttered triple talaq using the present tense. Three days later, he reaffirmed the oral divorce through a written talaqnama, which he sent to Zeenat on WhatsApp.

Enraged, Zeenat decided she had finally had enough. She yelled at the maulvi for writing the talaqnama without asking for her side of the story, went back to the police, secured an order restraining her husband from entering their house and is now doggedly pursuing a domestic violence case against him. It is the triple talaq, however, that worries Zeenat the most. At least two other maulvis – including one from the local office of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board – have assured her that her divorce is invalid, and she is praying for the Supreme Court to ban the practice.

Zeenat is clear that she doesn’t want a divorce, and lists three reasons for it. “First reason is that I love him,” she said. “My daughters don’t understand it, but I was married at 19 and have only lived with him. Besides, he cannot just pay me a little money and expect his responsibility to be over.” The third reason, Zeenat said, is society. “I don’t want people to point fingers at my girls and say that their mother got divorced after 20 years of marriage. It is a taboo.”

Despite this, Zeenat’s recent experience fighting the domestic violence case has made her see a downside to a ban on triple talaq. “I have met a Hindu woman who has been trying to get a divorce in court for years and she is actually envious of how quick our triple talaq is,” said Zeenat. “So maybe what we need is not an end to triple talaq, but some strong law that will make husbands scared of divorcing their wives.”

Zeenat Shaikh's talaqnama, sent to her by courrier.
Zeenat Shaikh's talaqnama, sent to her by courrier.

‘Believe in Sharia more than any court’

Like many wives in abusive marriages, Sabina Khan put up with her husband’s violence for two reasons: she had been taught from childhood that such conflicts were normal between married couples, and she believed that one day, he would change for the better.

A 25-year-old tuition teacher from Dharavi, Mumbai, Sabina had an arranged marriage in 2011 and a daughter two years later. In the first four years of their marriage, Sabina grew increasingly wary of the regular beatings and frequent divorce threats. “He never worked, never looked after our daughter and wanted sex all the time,” said Sabina. “I would tell him I am not a machine, but he often forced himself on me.”

Two years ago, during a bitter fight, her husband uttered talaq three times. When Sabina’s father confronted him, he “begged for forgiveness and claimed he had said it by mistake”. But Sabina’s family believes in the validity of triple talaq and refused to accept his sudden remorse. After that, her husband left the city after that and has not showed up since.

“But his family now claims that I am lying, that he never gave me an oral divorce and that they will not let me marry again,” said Sabina, who tried to file a police complaint against her missing husband in October 2016, but claims she received no support from the police.

Sabina has visited several muftis who have assured her of the validity of the oral talaq. But the ongoing Supreme Court case makes her nervous: if triple talaq is outlawed, she says, she would be bound to her husband again. “I believe in Islam and what the Sharia says is more important to me than what any court says,” said Sabina. “But now all I want is written proof of my divorce through a talaqnama, so that I am free to move on.”

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