NEW DELHI: A fascinating study by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan and its dynamic leader Zakia Soman has basically confirmed what every Muslim woman knows: they want the triple talaq to be abolished. But it needed to be corroborated in this form for it to be taken note of, and understood in the proper context. The report that also points to the very low socio-economic causes of early marriage, sudden divorce, domestic violence has interviewed nearly 5000 women in states across India, also made the important conclusion that organisations like the Muslim Personal Law Board are not even known to 92 per cent of the women, a sign of their efficacy and importance!

Organisations like the BMMA and individuals like Soman have been working for decades on reforms within the Muslim Law. And the response amongst the women, despite opposition from the men, has been extremely encouraging always. Any number of meetings have been held on the issue of reforms, with Muslim women in burkhas coming out to speak against the triple talaq that has impacted on almost every family. While this report basically interviews women from the economically lower strata of society, the provision is actively in use amongst the richer Muslims as well. Women have received the triple talaq from their husbands over the telephone, through the mail, and at this point one is not in a position to say whether the Indian Maulanas have started recognising the internet as well as the via media for divorce.

The trauma is the same, although in the lower strata of society it leads to immediate destitution. This writer has interviewed numerous women over the years in the north Indian states who were deserted by their husbands, either with or without the divorce, and being illiterate, economically dependent, found themselves literally on the streets with their children. Muslim men in India have successfully used the ‘allowance’ of four wives, and triple talaq ---in that a divorce is final if the man pronounces the word thrice---to their advantage. They either leave the wife and the children to marry again under Islamic law, or divorce the woman. The mehr’, which refers to the amount fixed at the time of marriage for the man to pay his wife, is usually a token in such marriages, often in just double digits and even that is not paid. Alimony as a concept does not exist, and maintenance for the children is not even recognised.

There have been periodic efforts by womens organisations to bring in the reforms, necessary to alleviate the Muslims womans plight. The movement gathered considerable momentum in the 1980’s with a standard nikahnama (marriage document) almost finalised in consultation with Muslim women, wherein the ‘contract’ which is essentially what a Muslim marriage is, protected the woman’s rights. In the marriage document, the two parties can include any number of issues relating to marriage, divorce, maintenance etc. and it was thus decided that if a standard document was made available, then the poor, illiterate woman by availing of the same would not be exploited. The consultations were taken to the Imams and the response was sort of favourable. But then the Babri Mosque was demolished, the country broke out in riots, and reforms were thrown out of the window as the more pressing demand of security took over.

It must be pointed out here, that social reforms for any community in any part of the world, flow out of periods of sustained peace and are pushed back if the trend favours discord and violence. The women’s organizations realised that the assertion of communalism had closed the window, and all retracted to instead work on instilling a sense of security amongst the minorities. The firefighting on this front has not ended since, and it is heartening to note that the Muslim women have again decided to speak out against the regressive and discriminatory proviso of divorce in this excellent report.

A second point made in this study, that is significant, is the fact that an overwhelming majority of Muslim women have never even heard of the Muslim Personal Law Board that claims to speak for all Muslims. This feeds into the larger perception that the Board is highly patriarchal, resistant to reforms, resistant to equal status for Muslim women, and is generally packed with conservative, reactionary persons claiming to represent the minorities. Several interactions with them in the past have revealed this, with women organisations battering their head against a wall that has refused to move for the decades that it has been in existence. As a token gesture to mounting criticism the Board at one stage did include a woman member or two, but they were carefully chosen---in that they were equally resistant to reforms that could benefit the status of women.

Most Muslim countries, including Pakistan, have brought in legal reforms curbing the absolute right of the Muslim man over marriage and divorce. And of course property rights as well.

There is no record of the number of Muslim women made destitute through these provisions, but if ever a study is done, the percentage will be on the higher side. The case of Shahbano that divided the Muslim community, and brought the government heavily on the side of the reactionary forces was a case in point. She was an old woman, made destitute by the sudden divorce, and had approached the courts for some sustenance to enable her to live. What everyone liked to forget was that the Supreme Court judgement based itself on the Criminal Procedure Code wherein a maximum of Rs 500 had been allowed for the destitute woman, of any religious community or caste. This was all it was, but the very decision to grant her the amount and help her out of complete destitution created a backlash that the government was unable to withstand. Or rather, refused to withstand.

Muslim women have always joined efforts to give them equality and dignity. They have done so despite resistance from local community leaders and the menfolk. In a Lucknow mohalla when Muslim women started availing of family planning facilities, the local Imam issued a fatwa that he would not say the funeral prayers of any woman who practiced family planning. This came as a deterrent of sorts, but most women decried the man while speaking to this writer at the time, saying that the younger girls would not listen. All that would happen is that they would become even more secretive about it, they said. Unfortunately their fight for justice is certainly weakened when politicians push through discriminatory and communal agendas, as that gives a handle to the men to push their women indoors in the name of security.

But the fight , as the report suggests, is still on and the times they are a changing as Bob Dylan would say. For the women, who are bringing in the change themselves, quietly but steadily.