Oppressive personal laws aren’t the only thing standing between Muslim women and happy lives

The nation cannot swoop in to save the Muslim woman while Muslim communities are simultaneously being brought to their knees.

I am glad it is over. I refer to talaq-e-bidat, the practice of Muslim men uttering talaq, talaq, talaq in a single setting to instantly divorce their wives, which rightfully belonged in a trash can, but also to the television nation’s delirious excitement at having “saved Muslim women”.

Rarely, in recent times, has any government or party, from the prime minister down, been so visibly stirred at the impending empowerment of a vulnerable minority.

The Bharatiya Janata Party Twitter cell is twittering delight at the end of “this evil practice… thanks to the persistent and firm stand taken by PM Modi”. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath has hailed the “historic move”. The prime minister himself tweeted that the judgement “grants equality to Muslim women…a powerful measure for women empowerment”.

Well, congratulations gentlemen, but your task begins now. Because we are where we need to be –
within the framework of the Constitution. This chiefly is what Muslim women’s rights groups are celebrating. As they should.

If gender empowerment is what the nation was truly seeking, then the judgement is less historic than the hype. The question is how one frames gender equality, gender equity and gender justice – three phrases invoked repeatedly in the Supreme Court’s verdict on Tuesday.

The media-led and politics-driven narrative of Muslim women’s rights in India has long ceased to be framed by the Constitution. The dominant frame has been personal law and conservative clergy.

It is through the personal tragedies of a series of Muslim women – Gudiya, Imrana and their more famous predecessor Shah Bano, that an entire community has been constructed in the national imagination. Shayara Bano, admittedly brave in her personal battle, now joins this list.

In 1985, 62-year-old Shah Bano, was granted maintenance by the Supreme Court under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code, but Justice Chandrachud decided to also wax eloquent on the need for a Uniform Civil Code, and opened up a hornet’s nest. The Muslim Right saw it as an attack on its identity, the Hindu Right made common cause with the “oppressed Muslim women”. And in 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government played its own cynical politics, ignored progressive women’s rights groups, and brought in The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, effectively reversing Shah Bano’s small secular gain.

Then, in 2005, Gudiya’s personal dilemma was subjected to the worst kind of public scrutiny – led entirely by the media. She made a great “oppressed Muslim woman” story. This heavily pregnant Muslim woman was dragged to television studios, where anchors had lined up a prime-time selection of bearded conservative clergy to make predictably regressive pronouncements – about whether she should continue to live with her second husband Taufiq (whose child she would bear), or with the first one, Arif, a prisoner of war who had suddenly returned after having gone missing.

Imrana’s case

The same year, we witnessed Imrana in Muzaffarnagar, raped by her father-in-law but subjected to a so-called fatwa stating that she was now haram (non-kosher) for her husband and should marry the rapist. Imrana’s fatwa (apparently) stirred the conscience of the nation and made for another media best-seller. Small irony that the fatwa was issued at the behest of a local reporter (from a Noida-based Urdu paper, the Rashtriya Sahara) and not at the urging of Imrana’s family.

Even though the learned men from Deoband clearly fell short on wisdom, the media lost sight of the issue. Imrana’s story, began at the same place as numerous stories do in India – in the village. In that patriarchal institution called the jati-panchayat. Across large swathes of western Uttar Pradesh, a bunch of men routinely pronounce judgments on women – cut off her nose, parade her naked, stone her, excommunicate her – if she breaks their arbitrary rules. The majority of these cases involve Hindus. Call it jati panchayat, call it fatwa – it was the same cultural practice taking different institutional forms. The problem was the practice. The media became obsessed with the form; happy yet again to make “Muslim” out of the issue.

Muslim women in India are somehow seen (or constructed) as more in the thrall of religious practices than women of any other community; more debilitated by their religion and more in need of rescue than women of any other community. Lila Abu-Lughod’s book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, a critique of the Western political impulse to swoop down and rescue the homogenously constructed Muslim woman from her (diverse) cultures, is instructive.

Defined by religion

The deprivation experienced by Indian Muslims was acknowledged in the Sachar Report of 2006. But much as the poor are blamed for their own poverty (they are illiterate and have too many children), Muslims in classic perversion were apparently victims largely of their own making; victimised by an archaic religion. Question: Why do Muslims have low literacy? Answer: Islam, shariat, medieval mindsets. So Muslims have cavorted around in a national burlesque, bearing familiar, evil tropes (mullahs, burqas, beards, fatwas) and yes, the tragedy tropes – the lives of Muslim women.

To the exclusion of every other aspect of life such as income, jobs, education, caloric intake, sense of security, and freedom from the lynch mob, the Indian Muslim’s empowerment horizon seems to start and end at the rules of marriage and right to divorce. Never mind that Muslim women too need the right to life, security, jobs, education and sufficient caloric intake, in addition to liberation from talaq-e-bidat.

Access to justice when faced with violence, and equal rights to development such as education, housing, employment and expansion of choices – both visibly absent today – affect Muslim women’s lives in terrible ways. The existence of one (violence) and failure of State redress, severely compromises their ability to access the other (development, personal freedom). And it is the collapsing promise of the Indian State, and its rapidly shrinking role in the life of the Muslim citizen that bears large blame for the expansion of a patriarchal clergy in community spaces.

Long road ahead

So, is personal law a valid site for intervention towards gender justice for Muslim women? Yes. But neither is it the sole nor most important one. Just a step on a road.

The celebrations in the air seem to disingenuously suggest that oppressive personal laws are the only thing standing between Muslim women and happy lives. Rubbish. Sixty-one years of a reformed and codified Hindu personal law has not exactly made Hindu women the poster girls of empowerment. Though the intent is noble, the nation cannot swoop in to save the Muslim woman, while Muslim communities are simultaneously being brought to their knees. The Constitution is not a playbook from which you cherry-pick. That is what we really need to be tweeting about today.

Farah Naqvi is a writer and activist in Delhi.

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