Talaq, Talaq, Talaq
By Poonam I Kaushish
In this silly season of political ennui the saying, play chess backwards; start from the endgame, seemed to have played on Prime Minister Modi’s mind when he sprung a surprise on the Opposition and took the ordinance route to outlaw the practice of instant triple talaq making it a penal offence attracting a jail term of three years and a fine. With battle lines drawn it remains to be seen whether the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill criminalising the practice of talaq-e-biddat will be reintroduced in the Rajya Sabha or lapse.
Questionably, why is consensus eluding a Bill which upholds Muslim women’s rights and strikes down an unfair practice? Is the Opposition being stubborn by wanting the Bill being sent to Parliament’s Standing Committee considering suggestions like the offender can be granted bail by a magistrate before trial to prevent its misuse and the wife would get subsistence allowance from the husband for her and children. She would also be entitled to the custody of minor children.
Succinctly it’s all about politics and using the ordinance/Bill to garner votes in the five Assembly elections round the corner. Had the legislation been passed, the Government would have earned brownie points with Muslim women for ending an un-Islamic and “arbitrary” practice. Today the BJP simply blames the Opposition for making Muslim women suffer for decades for votes and blocking a “progressive Bill of gender justice, gender dignity and gender equality”.
The Opposition accuses the BJP of demonising and victimising Muslims and feels the ordinance/Bill is an “overkill” akin to taking a gun to kill a mosquito. Whereby there is no need to criminalise a civil wrong; by imprisoning the husband it would make the wife’s position more precarious as there would be no one to provide alimony for her and her kids. Wondering why no similar provisions are made for Hindu men deserting their wives, it alleges a “human issue” has been made into a “political football.” Bluntly, both doing votebank politics over women’s rights.
Besides, not a few criticize the Bill for being prejudiced against a Muslim husband whereby he could be prosecuted without his wife’s consent for pronouncing triple talaq, unlike a Hindu man who rapes his wife while they are separated but cannot be prosecuted unless his estranged wife agrees. This anomaly needs to be amended, they contend.
Some find the Bill flawed saying that if the proposed law makes the practice of instant triple talaq illegal and void, how could a person be jailed for pronouncing ‘talaq-e-biddat’?. Others allege that through this legislation the Government was trying to bring in a Uniform Civil Code from the back door.
Further, even if the Rajya Sabha passes the Bill in Parliament’s winter session, it would have to be sent back to the Lok Sabha, for the new amendments to be cleared. Consequentially, till the 2019 elections, the Bill would be an easy target for both the BJP and Opposition to play ping-pong, burnish their image and accuse each other.
Certainly, this is not the first time women’s rights are being cynically used as a political plank by our leaders. The foundations for this were laid in 1986, when the Rajiv Gandhi Government overturned a historic Supreme Court judgment granting maintenance for a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano.
The Congress Government decided to curry favour with the Muslims and got Parliament to pass a new legislation, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act. This reinforced denial by the Muslim Personal Law of any maintenance to divorced women.
Thirty-one years later history was made again August last, a five-judge Supreme Court bench ruled unconstitutional a law that allowed Muslim men to divorce their wives simply by uttering “talaq” three times in quick succession. It disagreed that triple talaq was an integral part of religious practice. In December the Lok Sabha passed The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill whereby pronouncement of talaq-e-biddat by Muslim husbands would be held as void and a “cognizable and non-bailable” offence.
Thirty two years later, we have come full circle with the Bill being entrapped in the quick sands of Government-Opposition “kintu, parantu” political wrangling. Liberal Muslims are all for the Bill stating that both triple talaq and nikah halala are unIslamic, and antithetical to Islam. To underscore this they cite the example of the Prophet’s wife who was a widowed businesswoman, fifteen years older to him while his youngest wife Ayesha led a contingent to battle. Proof of Islam being inherently equalising.
They also hoot for gender equality, citing Islamic feminism as modern. Consequently, many Indian Muslim women today interrogate ‘the spirit of Islam’, and their place in it. According to a recent national survey 88% of Muslim women want a stop to patriarchal legal practices such as triple talaq and polygamy. They want the State to explicitly oversee traditional Islamic courts, while 95% hadn’t even heard of the Muslim Personal Law Board.
Undeniably, the legislation is a game changer which will have rippling effects for times to come. Not only will it unshackle 21 Century Muslim women trapped in archaic medieval Personal Laws but also give them a leg up to equality before law and protection against discrimination on the basis of her gender by underscoring Islamic feminism as modern.
Specially against the backdrop of divorce rates being higher among Muslim women than men. Shockingly, there have been 430 instances of triple talaq between January 2017 and September this year. Analysis of the 2011 census shows that Muslim women’s divorce rate (rate of divorce is calculated as a percentage of the married population for that category) is 3.53 in contrast to 1.96 for women of all religions. Also, there are 3.7 Muslim women (2,12,074) for 1 Muslim man (57,535) who reported being divorced.
Moreover, analysis for 5 States where the Muslims share in the population is higher than the Indian average of 14%, indicates that Muslim women’s divorce rate outstrips those of women from all religions by a wide margin. UP, Jharkhand and Bihar have higher divorce rates among Muslims than among Hindus. This is all the more astonishing since these States overall have the lowest divorce rates, while J&K, West Bengal and Kerala generally have some of the highest marital dissolution rates.
Pertinently, regulating matrimonial laws is acknowledged in Islamic countries and not considered contrary to the Sharia. In fact, many Islamic countries have codified and reformed the Muslim Personal Law to check its abuse. Polygamy has been banned in 22 Islamic countries, including Syria, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Regrettably, over the years deliberate distortions of religion to suit narrow personal and political ends have vitiated the country, which shamelessly, has everything to do with vote-bank politics. Whereby, Rahim and Allah have been reduced to election cut-outs.
What next? Ultimately, no one including our rulers should be allowed to decide, dictate or ruin another individual’s life. From successfully granting Shah Bano her alimony in 1985 to heeding Shayara Bano’s pleas of banning instantaneous triple talaq it remains to be seen who will break the political deadlock and unshackle minority women? Will it end in a political slugfest of tokenism? A cruel joke on women or will Modi have the last laugh? —- INFA