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Uniform Civil Code: Should Religious Laws Be Put Above Individual Rights?

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By Manisha Chachra:

Thirty-five-year-old Shayara Bano’s petition to the Supreme Court has jostled the country once again with the debate of uniform civil code. The petition challenges triple talaq, polygamy, and halala, claiming them to be unconstitutional. Shayara Bano’s greatest fear as reported to the Indian Express was the word ‘talaq’ uttered thrice by her husband, Rizwan Ahmed. The continuous warnings of talaq turned out to be serious when one day Rizwan spelled out the word and terminated their ‘nikah’ (marriage). Rizwan has refused to accept her back citing their religion doesn’t allow for the same, after this union had resulted in 6-7 abortions for Shayara, given that tubectomy is prohibited in the Quran.

Back during my graduation days, when we were taught about personal laws in the Islamic culture, we used to find it almost comical that uttering a word thrice can lead to a divorce. The reality of Shayara Bano reveals how these laws turn marriage into an exploitative system, subjecting women to domestic violence, abortions (control over her reproductive health) and restricting the ability to make a free choice.

What is intriguing about Shayara Bano’s petition is that it does not make a claim for uniform civil code, rather it is the assertion of the right to make a free choice, right to live a dignified life, right to be equal and not discriminated on the grounds of gender and religion, that makes this petition extremely crucial. The petition is a challenge to personal practices of religions vis-à-vis our equality and liberty as citizens of India. Nonetheless, the uniform civil code is a proposal to replace Islamic personal laws and bring in a standard set of rules that govern all religious communities in the country.

From the colonial times, many women revolutionaries have raised their voice against the tyrannical nature of personal laws. Women’s movements in the colonial era advocated for a uniform civil code citing that the personal laws created situations of economic dependence for divorced wives. Efforts were made in the post-Independent era to pass this law but all in vain. In the 1980s, the debate was rekindled once again, when a 62-year-old Muslim woman, Shah Bano, raised her voice to demand the right to alimony in the courts going on to win the case. However, this historic judgment let to a nation-wide protest by Muslim fundamentalists against the Indian judiciary interfering in the Islamic personal laws. This triggered the then Rajiv Gandhi government to pass The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, which reversed the stance of the court and altered the laws to favor the personal practices in the Islamic tradition.

Various governments have used religion as a political instrument rather than using it to create an environment of social reforms. BJP, on multiple occasions, has voiced its keenness to pass the uniform civil code. However, a uniform civil code passed by the Janata government might have ulterior motives of its own (Hindutva). Such a uniform civil code might not be sufficient even if it comes into existence.

There is an urgent need for intra-religion reforms which need to be initiated by members of respective religious communities. Particularly because Muslim women have forwarded a different interpretation of the Sharia (Muslim law) from a gendered perspective. When asked about internal religious reforms, Rummana Zaidi, a Research Scholar from Jamia Milia Islamia, says, “The proposition of a uniform civil code is extremely alluring. However, one has to be extremely cautious when venturing towards this in a country like ours, because a vast majority of citizens, who are firm believers or in some way or the other feel affiliated to their religious groundings, will certainly not welcome this change and are bound to be hostile. The need, therefore, is to first work internally within the religious frameworks and then move toward larger changes. Otherwise, the efforts might prove to be futile. One cannot ignore the ground realities.”

In a similar vein, Lubna Qadri, a Kashmiri Woman rights activist opines “The misinterpretation of Islamic law is quite common nowadays. If one goes by hadiths and seerat, Islam has always empowered women in every possible way and has secured women’s position in society like no other law.” As far as triple talaq is concerned, she says “It should not be a one-way street where there are no chances of return. The practice of triple talaq in a single sitting leaves no room for any repentance, negotiation and return for the two persons. Therefore, there is an immediate need to interpret Shariat in a gender-just manner.”

In the end, Bano’s petition raises some fairly fundamental questions. One, with the predominance of religion in determining every aspect of personal life, where is the space for freedom of an individual? The Constitution of India guarantees a life of dignity and personal freedom to all the citizens irrespective of caste, class, gender or religion. These foundational principles are laid out in the form of Fundamental rights. Should the right of groups, in this case religious groups, be put above the rights of the individuals? Is curtailing individual choices in the name of group identities fair to the principles of freedom and liberty? It is contended that with modernization and globalisation, the advent of new technology and overlapping of different cultures, it is necessary to initiate social reforms within the framework of religion. Such Reforms should free the religion from inequalities and patriarchal attitudes and create a space for democratic cultural practices.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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