In the history of humankind, many things that were discriminatory were passed off as legal—such as apartheid, slavery, and colonialism—until they were finally abolished. People who made them legal were powerful, and did so to serve their narrow self-interest. But oppressed classes, when they had an overwhelming desire for emancipation, fight back to have discriminatory laws overturned. That is exactly what happened in the case of triple talaq also.
The Supreme Court, in 2017, held that the Muslim practice of triple talaq was unconstitutional, and directed the Union government to consider appropriate legislation to do justice to Muslim women. The court’s pronouncement provided succour to countless women reeling under the scourge of a discriminatory practice. The unfair practice emboldens a Muslim man to violate the sanctity of marriage by deserting his wife in a unilateral and patently unjust manner. Triple talaq dehumanises women, enslaves them to their husbands, and deprives them of their dignity.
Though this a welcome step, the very fact that it took 70 years for independent India to reform an utterly discriminatory law is deeply saddening. It also shows how arduous and painstakingly slow it is to bring about any reformation in Indian society.
There are many people who are not only questioning the intent of the BJP in enacting the law, but also opposing the law itself. By doing so, they reveal their true colours. No religion or society is perfect, and reformation must be an essential ingredient of human progress. The Congress, by continuing to oppose the triple talaq law, appears to be intent on appeasing the Muslim clergy. Through its appeasement politics, in fact, fueled the advent of the Hindu right wing.
Indian women, irrespective of the religion they are born into, are an oppressed class. The oppression is the direct result of their disempowerment, which is a consequence of their subjugation and financial dependence. The conservative elements in every religious community target their womenfolk in the name of community honour, and leave no stone unturned while exercising unwarranted control over them, thereby restricting their freedom.
Many of us wonder what made the practice of triple talaq continue in India even after it was banned in 22 Muslim majority countries including Pakistan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. But the main reason behind the continued injustice meted out to Muslim women appears to be political. In India, the Muslim clergy, to tighten their grip over their community, make unceasing efforts to drive it towards conservatism, and even try to unduly influence the Muslim community’s voting behaviour. The fatwas issued by the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, to vote for certain political parties are well-known. Therefore, political parties that treat the Muslim community as a mere vote bank compete to grab this vote bank by appeasing its conservative clergy.
The Shah Bano case stands as a testimony to the fact that political parties in India will stoop to any low, in order to appease the Muslim orthodoxy. In a blatantly unjust move, the then Congress government, led by Rajiv Gandhi, made a law to deprive a divorced Muslim woman called Shah Bano of her right to maintenance, overturning a verdict given by the Supreme Court that granted her alimony. And, it is this unholy nexus between political leaders and clergymen.
Muslim women, who have been subjected to these discriminatory laws, fought back, and knocked at the doors of the highest judicial body. The male-dominated and downright regressive All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) bitterly opposed any alteration to triple talaq on the pretext that it will amount to intervention in the Muslim personal laws. In its feeble attempt to dissuade the Supreme Court from delivering its verdict, it even proposed that it would take some measures that include subjecting errant Muslim men (who misuse the custom) to social boycott. The Board, however, appears to be ignorant of the fact that subjecting people to social boycott is also illegal and discriminatory. Those affected by triple talaq fought a protracted legal battle and faced many odds in their effort to get justice. With the tabling of the triple talaq bill in the Lok Sabha, and its passage, the focus now shifts to the Rajya Sabha, where the opposition parties are bent on thwarting it. If passed even in the Rajya Sabha, and made into a law, it will not only be a victory for the cause of gender justice but also a decisive defeat of the forces that support male chauvinism in the garb of religion.
The Muslim clergy appears to have a very negative view of gender justice, and many of them publicly expressed their aversion to it. Some time ago a prominent Muslim leader called Kanthapuram A.P. Aboobacker Musliyar stated, “Gender equality is something which is never going to be a reality. It is against Islam, humanity and was intellectually wrong”, and went on to say that “women are fit only to deliver children”. The AIMPLB, headed by the self-proclaimed leaders of Muslims, is no different. Therefore, these forces are not fit to represent the interests of Muslim women.
It appears that Muslim, many years ago, had realised the futility of expecting others to speak for them and have at last taken matters into their own hands. A progressive Muslim women’s organisation called the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) was instrumental in bringing about awareness among Muslim women and is at the vanguard of the fight against discrimination, even today.
The clergy and other orthodox elements in the Muslim community must realise the fact the gender justice is non-negotiable in 21st century society. They can no longer thwart the overwhelming urge among women to lead a life of dignity in a just society. Self-proclaimed Muslim leaders, instead of opposing every move towards reformation and getting branded as patently regressive, can transform themselves into instruments for social change. They can raise awareness among the Muslim community about various social evils, and sensitise them about the need for reformation. But that appears to be too much to expect from them.