Alternate voices on talaq
By Jyoti Punwani, Mumbai Mirror | Oct 23, 2016
Shehnaaz Sheikh (l) was the first woman from her community to challenge the Muslim Personal Law in the SC in 1983, after her husband pronounced triple talaq; The recent uproar over Uniform Civil Code has shifted the focus away from the demand for abolition of triple talaq
More and more Muslim men are speaking out, though in hushed tones, against the practice that lets them dissolve their marriage with just a single word.
Shehnaaz Sheikh was 24 when she challenged Muslim Personal Law in the Supreme Court in 1983, the first one to do so. Her husband had pronounced triple talaq at one sitting after two years of marriage, but under pressure from her parents, kept calling her back. Mumbai’s muftis gave her different fatwas on whether the talaq was final or not. When a lawyer explained to her that under Muslim law, there was little she could do, she decided to challenge the entire set of provisions regarding marriage, divorce and inheritance that make up Muslim Personal Law. “I wanted to be treated as an equal citizen,” she tells Mumbai Mirror.
Then followed two years of physical threats, changing homes and jobs, for she was now an “enemy of Islam”. Her father publicly disowned her. What kept her going, she says, was the support of the feminist “Forum Against Oppression of Women”, which made her cause its own. Just a few brave Muslim women openly supported her: historian Asiya Siddiqui, Women’s India Trust founder Kamila Tyabji, Prof Anees Syed, Shabana Azmi.
In the thick of this campaign came the Shah Bano judgment and the furore against it, whipped up by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), followed by the opening of the locks of the 450-year-old Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and the BJP’s campaign to demolish it. Shehnaaz’s petition never came up for hearing, but she went on to set up the first feminist Muslim women’s organisation Awaaz e Niswaan (voice of women).
Shehnaaz had to flee her home during Mumbai’s 92-93 riots, yet she got Awaaz e Niswaan involved in relief work. All of this led to a nervous breakdown, and she turned to Vipassana. But the Neerja Bhanot Award winner has no regrets about her petition; in fact, Shehnaaz feels that the campaign sowed the seeds for the current challenge to Muslim Personal Law. “It’s heartening to see so many Muslim women approaching the Supreme Court. I was alone, walking in a desert, falling and picking myself up. What’s amazing is that this time, so many men are supporting these women.”
Among them is 80-year-old Mohammed Imran, an engineer from a distinguished Lucknow family. “While nikaah is a legal contract between two equals,” says Imran, “triple talaq is an abomination that takes away all the rights of the wife in the contract and gives them to the husband. This is legally and morally unacceptable. The concept of nikaah has become corrupted in Muslim society.” Imran points out that the Shariah is a collection of Quranic ayats, Hadees and Fiqh, and includes the personal opinions of the Ulema composing it. “It is neither divine nor immutable, as claimed by the AIMPLB.”
‘AIMPLB brainchild of politicians’
“80 per cent of the applications in our family courts are filed by Muslim women divorced through instant triple talaq,’’ says advocate Kader Sayani, who claims he was not allowed to speak at a meeting last week, after he told the organiser, Samajwadi Party MLA Abu Asim Azmi: “Please take us forward, not backwards. Triple talaq has been banned in so many Islamic countries. Act against this sinful practice.”
Sayani questions the authority of the AIMPLB to represent Muslims. “The Board is the brainchild of politicians who want to win Muslim votes. It has no legal standing.”
Many practising Muslim men share this abhorrence of both triple talaq and the AIMPLB. But few are willing to own up to it in the current atmosphere, for fear of being branded anti-Islam.
The Law Commission has chosen to release its questionnaire on a Uniform Civil Code while the triple talaq petitions are being debated. Hence these petitions have been submerged under the explosive issue of one-lawfor-all. Falling straight into the BJP’s trap (given that the UP elections are near), the AIMPLB is whipping up an “Islam-in-danger” hysteria, as it had during Shah Bano’s time.
‘Shariah faces threat from within’
On condition of anonymity, however, some men freely expressed their rejection of the AIMPLB’s stand on triple talaq. One of them had even called up a leading light of the Board to express his horror at the views expressed in its affidavit in the Supreme Court, only to be told off harshly.
“The issue of triple talaq should be analysed as a social practice that needs correction, not from an ‘RSS+BJP+Left+Liberals V/s Muslims’ angle,” said businessman Abbas (name changed). “The Shariah is not merely limited to the validity of instant triple talaq. The Ulema should realise that the Shariah faces a larger threat from within than from outside. Its spirit is badly damaged daily by Muslims.”
Activist M Saleem (name changed), an engineer by profession, was aghast at the AIMPLB’s affidavit. “It equates Islam with patriarchy, whereas Prophet Mohammed preached justice and equity. Marriage has to be based on justice. Besides, this affidavit reflects only the Deobandi viewpoint. The Ahle Hadees and the Shias do not accept instant triple talaq. Why has the Board not informed the court that there is no unanimity in this practice? Should we call it the Deobandi Personal Law Board?’’
Saleem wondered how the AIMPLB had formulated its views without calling for opinions from the community. “Where is the space for debate on such an important issue? I hope the religious organisations supporting the AIMPLB will give us the space to dissent and initiate reform.”
‘Board’s bizarre logic’
Waheed (name changed), a businessman who has been working with the community since the 92-93 riots, felt that the AIMPLB should have consulted scholars from renowned Islamic seminaries such as Cairo’s Al Azhar before submitting its affidavit. Referring to the fear expressed in the affidavit, that men might murder their wives at night if thwarted from giving instant talaq, Waheed hoped that the Supreme Court would order the arrest of the signatories to the affidavit. “Do these men have daughters? The court should ask them on what basis they claim to represent Muslims. Our women are right in approaching the court for justice.”
Some, however, felt the AIMPLB did represent the community, and it was right in rejecting judicial interference in Muslim Personal Law. But even they acknowledged that instant triple talaq was a problem.
They wanted the AIMPLB to assure the court that it would prescribe timebound punishments for those who gave such talaqs: either a social boycott, or getting their property attached.
Given this growing revulsion for instant triple talaq among ordinary men too, Muslim women have reason to hope.