In the euphoria over the Supreme Court judgment striking down instant triple talaq last fortnight, one name has been forgotten. Shehnaaz Sheikh was the first to challenge Muslim personal law – all of it, not just instant triple talaq – in the apex court, back in 1983. Sheikh was just 24 and all alone when she went to court.

Two years after she got married, Sheikh’s husband threw her out of their home after pronouncing talaq. But after that, he kept demanding that she come back. Her parents too urged her to return to him. Unwilling to do so, and unsure what her status was legally, Sheikh consulted several qazis, as the men trained in Islamic law are known, only to receive different opinions.

That was when a lawyer working in her office told her that this uncertainty was due to the nature of the law under which she had been divorced. He suggested that she should challenge Muslim ​​personal law in the Supreme Court as it was unconstitutional, violating the fundamental right to equality. In matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance, followers of India’s various religions are governed by laws specific to each group – or personal laws, as they are known.

“Till then I had considered myself an equal citizen,” recalled Sheikh. “But my experience made me realise I would have to fight for this status.”

Joining the women’s movement

As news of her petition spread, Sheikh was sought out by the Forum Against ​Oppression of Women, among the earliest autonomous feminist organisations in Mumbai, and lawyer Indira Jaising. The Forum started a signature campaign in support of Sheikh’s petition while Jaising decided to fight her petition in the Supreme Court. “I had always been the kind who questioned everything,” said Sheikh. “I felt immediately that my views matched what the women’s groups were saying.”

At the same time, the Ulema (the clergy) and the Urdu press began describing her as an “enemy of Islam”. Her father publicly disowned her. She became an outcast in her community, forced to be always on the move. But buoyed by the support of women’s groups, Sheikh went on to study law. Soon, the young woman who had started out alone, launched the first feminist Muslim organisation: Awaaz e Niswaan (voice of women).

While this was underway, the Shah Bano judgment came in 1985. The Supreme Court had granted 65-year-old Shah Bano from Indore alimony under secular law, but the clergy and Muslim politicians launched a campaign against the judgment, calling it un-Islamic. A huge rally of Muslim men, led by maulanas, had stoned Shah Bano’s house. It was then that she decided to repudiate her judgment. This reporter recalls a meeting with maulanas in Indore’s main mosque in 1985. They were flush with their success at having forced Shah Bano to repudiate her legal victory. The maulanas told me: “Now we have to tackle Shehnaaz Sheikh in your city.”

“Impossible!” I remember retorting. “Shehnaaz isn’t alone like Shah Bano was.”

Little community support

Even today, Sheikh can recall the names of the Muslim women who signed her petition – they were so few. “Women’s India Trust founder Kamila Tyabji, Professor Anees Syed, historian Asiya Siddiqui, Shabana Azmi…” said Sheikh. “Even liberal Muslims, some of whom are hailing the Supreme Court verdict on triple talaq today, hesitated to sign. They didn’t support instant talaq, but were angry that I had asked the court to interfere in a community matter.”

But Sheikh found support from another section within her community – poor Muslim women divorcees, whom she met as part of her legal work with Indira Jaising’s Lawyers’ Collective. She decided to call them for a screening of Jadd-o-Jahed, a documentary about her, to see if they felt as strongly about instant talaq as she did. The venue was the modest home of another divorcee, Anwari.

The responses of the 50-odd women who watched the documentary became the starting point of Awaaz-e-Niswaan. Sheikh decided to locate the organisation in Nagpada, the old Muslim heartland in South Mumbai, to reach out to the community more effectively. The odds were many. Some were expected, such as the opposition from maulanas. But she also had to deal with the underworld and with crumbling buildings. Sheikh recalled that the public toilet collapsed even as she was using it, forcing her to relieve herself in a tumbler. But the women did not stop coming.

It was only after the 1992-’93 riots in Mumbai that the men in her community accepted Sheikh. Her relief work in the riots convinced them that she was a leader who belonged.

In 1993, Sheikh won the Neerja Bhanot Bravery Award, but that year proved a turning point for her. The combined stress of having to flee her home during the riots, this time because of violent Hindus, and of organising relief work, led her to suffer a breakdown. When she recovered, Sheikh turned to spirituality.

‘Laughing and crying’

The Supreme Court decision against instant talaq has left her elated. “It was overwhelming, to say the least,” she said. “A dream come true…I had never thought it would happen in my lifetime. I’ve been laughing and crying all at once.”

She is thrilled that the seeds laid by her have flowered into a widespread reform movement in the community led by its women. But she is quick to point out that she was not the only pioneer in this struggle. “Hamid Dalwai took up the issue in the early ’70s, against unimaginable odds,” she said. “His wife Mehrunnissa kept up the fight. My contemporary Razia Patel led a group of Muslim women in Jalgaon [Maharashtra] to watch a movie after the ​mullahs issued a fatwa against women watching films. Rashida Mujawar of Goa fought the mullahs who wanted Goa’s Uniform Civil Code replaced with Muslim personal law. She was just a law student then. And how can I forget the dynamic founders of Aawaz-e-Niswaan?”

Sheikh added: “I salute the individual petitioners and the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. With their women qazis and Sharia courts, the Andolan is giving speedy justice to women. This is a revolution because maulanas and qazis are losing their hold. Muslim men from all sections are also supporting these women. I feel they will be able to find ways to implement the judgment too.”