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How brave Muslim women are leading a quiet revolution to reform Islamic law


Minhaz Merchant

Maria Alam Umar is a social activist in Aligarh. She represents the brave new voice of Muslim women fighting to abolish the medieval practice of triple talaq.

Unafraid of the backlash from conservative Islamic clergy, Maria says not only should triple talaq be abolished but the All Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) should be abolished as well for its “pro-male stand on almost every aspect of Muslim life.”

Shazia Siddiqui is an entrepreneur. Also from Aligarh, she is as forthright as Maria Umar about gender reform in Islam: “The practice is discriminatory and should be abolished. How can someone have the right to end a marriage and ruin a woman's life by uttering three words. In fact, some Islamic countries have banned the practice of triple talaq.”

Women like Maria Umar and Shazia Siddiqui are leading a quiet revolution to reform Islamic law. Their initial battle is against triple talaq. But other women are seeking reforms across a range of social and religious issues, including the right of women to pray unfettered in shrines, cutting across religions, like the Haji Ali dargah and the Sabarimala temple.

Voices like Maria Umar's and Shazia Siddiqui's have in the past been drowned out by the clergy. With the Indian government last Friday (October 7, 2016) for the first time filing an affidavit in the Supreme Court calling for an end to triple talaq, those voices will now gain strength and support.

Here's what the government's affidavit says: “Women must be equal participants in the development and advancement of the 's largest democracy and any practice (triple talaq and polygamy) which denudes the status of a citizen of India merely by virtue of the religion she happens to profess is an impediment to that larger goal.

“Even theocratic states have undergone reform in this area of law and therefore in a secular republic like India, there is no reason to deny the rights available under the Constitution. The fact that Muslim countries where Islam is the State Religion have undergone extensive reforms goes to establish that the practices in question cannot be regarded as integral to practices of Islam.

“Secularlism being a hallmark of Indian democracy, no part of its citizenry ought to be denied access to fundamental rights, much less can a section of secular society be worse off than its counterparts in theocratic countries, many of which have undergone reform. Even though it may be true that only some women are directly and actually affected by the practices of triple talaq and polygamy, the fact remains that every woman to whom the law applies lives under the threat, fear or prospect of being subjected to these practices, which in turn impacts her status and her right to live with confidence and dignity

“The practice of polygamy was regarded as progressive and path-breaking centuries ago but with the evolution of women and the principle of gender justice, these required serious reconsideration. Even an affidavit by the Muslim Personal Law Board has referred to those practices as ‘undesirable', which cannot be elevated to essential religious practice, much less one that forms the substratum of religion.”

The Supreme Court will hear the matter early next week.

A secular UCC

In a perverse definition of secularism, India since Independence has allowed each religion to practise its own personal law rather than follow a genuinely secular Uniform Civil Code (UCC).

In matters of marriage, divorce, maintenance, adoption and succession, different religious personal laws apply. Hindu personal law has seen significant reform since the 1950s – though more reform is needed in financial and tax constructs such as the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) and much else.

But it is Muslim personal law that remains stuck in a pre-Quranic era. As Maria Alam Umar points out, the Quran actually gives Muslim women equal rights, including divorcing a husband (khulla).

The Muslim Personal Law Board's response to the Supreme Court in its affidavit reveals the regressive mindset that governs this atavistic body: “If there develops serious discord between the couple, and the husband does not at all want to live with her, legal compulsions of time-consuming separation proceedings and expenses may deter him from taking the legal course. In such instances, he may resort to illegal, criminal ways of murdering or burning her alive.” (Emphasis mine.)

Coincidentally, on the same day (October 7) that the government filed its affidavit against triple talaq in the Supreme Court, the Law Commission sought the public's views on triple talaq and a uniform civil code over the next 45 days.

Muslim organisations – and even some Hindu bodies – have long opposed UCC. Successive governments in India have treated UCC like a tinderbox that could blow up in their face.

Even as the Law Commission seeks a public debate on UCC, Muslim clerics have warned of riots should UCC be implemented. The government should pay no heed to such threats. The clergy has declining support in the Muslim community which recognises that the path to and prosperity runs through modern , not madrasas.

On October 7, again coincidentally, the Supreme Court dealt with another sensitive issue: the entry of women into the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali dargah in Mumbai. It advised the Haji Ali Dargah Trust to “take a progressive stand. Nothing regressive should be suggested.” The Trust told the court it would indeed take a progressive stand.

Extending the interim stay on the Bombay High Court order allowing women to enter the inner sanctum, the Supreme Court will consider the Haji Ali Dargah Trust's “progressive” response on October 17.

Like Maria Alam Umar and Shazia Suiddiqui, another brave woman, Noorjehan Safia Niaz, is leading the campaign for gender equality in the Haji Ali dargah.

Co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan which petitioned the Bombay High Court against the Haji Ali Dargah Trust's ban on women entering the inner sanctum, Noorjehan says implacably: “We are against the ban on women's entry to the shrine's sanctum sanctorum. We hope by progressive stand the Haji Ali Trust means it will restore the rights of women's entry to the spot inside the tomb, where only men are allowed.”

Like the abolition of triple talaq, the right of women to worship in a place of worship – mosque, dargah, temple or church – must be absolute.

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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