Thursday, August 24, 2017
ALIGARH: As the Supreme Court judgement on the constitutional validity of triple talaq is awaited, there is a need to understand the debate on personal laws in the country from a socio-political perspective.
In a multicultural country like India, personal laws are sites of constant assertion and preservation of identity, thus, time and again, carrying out reforms in personal laws raise tensions.
Intertwined with the issue of personal laws is the issue of minority rights.
The assimilative and ‘othering’ cultural nationalism known as hindutva is seen as a major threat by the minorities of India today . The Hindu right is mobilizing triple talaq as a means of portraying Muslims as being ‘backward’. Thus the debate on triple talaq needs to be framed in the context of the rising threat to minority identity, seen in the backdrop of the rise of hindutva from the mid- 1980s and now again after the BJP came to power in 2014, when the very right to life and livelihood of Muslims is under threat.
The appropriation of the demand of reform in Muslim personal law by the extreme right is causing more harm to the cause of gender justice by giving political mileage to communal forces, thereby silencing and marginalizing moderate voices. (Ironically when after independence Jawaharlal Nehru initiated reforms in Hindu Law from the perspective of gender justice, the same RSS led Hindu Right resisted the changes tooth and nail . Even the then President Rajendra Prasad strongly resisted reforms in Hindu law , today, the same stand is being taken by All India Muslim Personal Law Board)
Thus the present controversy on triple talaq needs to be understood in the perspective of communal polarization and political mileage it has given to right wing parties by selectively projecting Muslim law as backward and Muslim women in need of being saved .
In many ways it repeats the moves of the ‘civilizing mission’ undertaken by former colonial powers, who justified their rule by projecting the colonised as being in need of saving. Part of this discourse that several feminist scholars have shown as operating in the colonial contexts included the construal of colonised women as being in need of being saved from brown men by the colonizer .
The reform in the ‘women’s question’ was central to this mission and they used both propaganda and laws to further this ‘civilizing mission’ and thus, their rule over the different communities of India. So, for instance, the American journalist Kathrine Mayo wrote Mother India as she opposed the demands by Indian nationalists for self -rule on the grounds of the deplorable status of Hindu women.
Similarly gender and the ‘women’s question’ is central to the neo-imperialist policies of the Western powers. After the fall of the Soviet Union the US needed a ‘new enemy’. The thesis of ‘clash of civilization’ was invoked in order to ‘other’ West Asia, in particular Islamic countries as the ‘new enemy’.
Thus the veil became central to this discourse of ‘othering’ Islam .the veiled Muslim women were projected as in need of being saved . Islamophobia became central to in this new geo-political project . Wars were waged in Afghanistan and Iraq on the pretext of saving women from Muslim men. Burqini and the veil was banned in the name of liberal values in France.
In the same way in India in the 1980s it was the Shah Bano controversy that gave a new lease of life to the BJP at that point at the political margins. The discourse of minority appeasement came to its peak after the then Congress government passed the Muslim Women Protection on Rights on Divorce Act 1986.This Act was dubbed by the Hindu right and the popular media discourse as a step of ‘minority appeasement’.
Noted legal scholar and activist, Flavia Agnes has observed: “the Shah Bano judgement set the tone for communalization of the demand for a UCC and for projecting the Muslim law as background and anti-women. Until then, and more particularly in the 1950’s when the debate around the Hindu Code Bill was raging, it was the Hindu law that was projected as ‘archaic and anti- women’ and in comparison, the laws of the minorities were far more progressive and modern.”
The debate is framed in communal terms rather than debating the issue on feminist lines by questioning the patriarchal social structure rather than placing a particular religion solely under the scanner .
Furthermore, the present debate also projects Muslim women from the singular perspective of being victims of personal law, while there is a conspicuous silence on Muslim -women who are victims of sexual violence perpetrated by the hindutva groups because of their hyphenated identities .
While the PM choose to denounce triple talaq , there was a selective silence on the plight of women relatives of the men murdered by the cow vigilantes and anti-Romeo vigilantes . These Muslim women were selectively silenced by the media and sidelined by the state . Why doesn’t the media and the state talk about legal redressal to these women? Why isn’t the ‘conscience of the nation’ pricked when innocents are being killed by cow vigilantes who roam scot free? Sadly it seems a free hand is given to these groups as the law of the land doesn’t apply to them.
Moreover, had the debate on personal law reform been neutral, and, had it not singled out laws pertaining to the Muslim minority only (as the community is already under threat of basic survival) it would have been more beneficial for Muslim women in the country.
As the debate on Muslim personal law reform is hijacked by the Hindu right it has silenced many of us who were at the forefront calling for reforms in the personal law from within.
(The writer is Assistant Professor at the Advanced Centre for Women's Studies , Aligarh Muslim University whose areas of research interest include Muslim women's rights in India , media representations of women and women’s movement in the Third World.)