Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Justice and Rights in Spouse Relations

India: Muslim Women’s Struggle for Justice

Textual Islam, as emerging from the Qur’an and the sacred Prophetic traditions, provides a fascinating framework to think about and shape an egalitarian family and social order. Islamic tradition envisions justice and fairness in all types of human relations- family engagements, business agreements, state administration and world order. Islam theorizes that the balancing of freedoms and responsibilities, rights and duties among the stakeholders is central to the long term cohesiveness of all types of social institutions. Hence, it commends equity, reciprocity, generosity and even magnanimity  as diverse approaches that could be appropriately deployed for fostering family relations and retaining social order on an even keel. It insists on moderation and restraint and just dealings even in adversarial/strained relations. The Book of God also warns Muslims by citing the lessons from history, of other communities and nations that had abused their freedoms and failed their souls, so that they may observe the Divine limits of conduct. 

It  is an irony of history that despite Islamic empires ruling over most parts of modern India for centuries altogether, the Muslims today stare at the bleak prospect of remaining at the margins of the Indian State for the foreseeable future. With the partition of the subcontinent in the 1940’s into India and Pakistan on the exit of British colonial administration, the Muslims were reduced to a neglected, minority group of 'second-class citizens' among the sea of Hindus in the 'secular', 'democratic' India. Majoritarian political mobilization, rising religion-based adverse discrimination, communal prejudices and other exclusionary biases, denial of fundamental rights and deprivation of basic entitlements are rampant in India today. So much so that astute political observers fear that 'Hindutva'- the political cry for ultra-'Hinduisation'- might bury India's composite culture and latent secular ethos in its majoritarian triumphalism. Muslim women in India, thus, suffer from multiple disadvantages. Their vulnerability is directly related to and arises from the unjust social order prevailing in the country: the political system and the governing elites have failed to bring about an egalitarian society for all of the people through appropriate interventions, including legal reforms and sustained commitment to the equal application of the laws. The traditional community leaders have also failed the Muslim women, they are unable or unwilling to ensure the basic rights and entitlements of the womenfolk in issue areas such as marriage and divorce, child care, family support and maintenance. Their failures are glaring and pronounced, given the impressive presence of a range of normative principles within the Qur'an and the Prophetic Traditions that address this vital area of family relations. 

The patriarchal dimensions of the Indian society, including among the Muslims, often perpetuate a 'family and community order' that inherently subjugates and oppresses women. Husbands are thus increasingly utilizing 'technological means' and new communication devices to get rid of their solemn marital responsibilities. It is revolting that such men/husbands who neglect their Qur'anic duties on respecting the rights and entitlements of their former spouses on divorce, apparently enjoy legitimacy and community support, even as the Mullahs and Maulvis who constitute the community leadership, fail their vocation to stand by the victims, by their abject failure to insist on justice and fairness through internal reforms.

India's imperfect democratic legal system, despite its structural biases and other inherent judicial inefficiencies, does offer the prospect of waging struggles for justice and reforms. This 'lawfare' possibility has in the past been invoked by spirited individuals, human rights activists and civil society movements to advance the cause of fairness and justice at multiple levels and scales in this diverse society. Of late, the Muslim women are organizing themselves to challenge the denial of rights in their every day lives. Former wives, abused and unfairly treated in marriage and out of it and are unjustly denied of their rights on divorce, are seeking to invoke the Qur'an and the national law in order to resist the male chauvinism and brinkmanship on display. 

Reproduced below is an Article in the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, dated October 02, 2016. The article by Vaishna Roy chronicles the remarkable story of a social worker, Zakia Soman, and the women's organization she co- founded, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan (Indian Muslim Women's Association) that is leading the legal struggle for banning certain unjust practices such as "Triple Talaq" that are being grossly misused by privileged men to neglect their legal responsibilities on divorce-matters. 

A few rabid, patriarchal men were speaking on the community’s behalf. And they were talking rubbish. We felt the need to raise a voice.’


Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan turns 10. Feisty co-founder Zakia Soman describes the journey. 


It’s peaceful in the compound of Ahmedabad’s Sarkhez Roza in the shade of a huge ashoka tree. The azaan sounds. Two mynahs drink water from a mud basin. It would be idyllic but the pretty and plump *Sakiya’s large eyes are welling over. Married six months and five months pregnant, her husband wants her to abort the baby so that he can divorce her under the Shariat.

*Shabana has a pretty elfin face under thick glasses. Her husband calls her blind and has thrown her out with their 10-month-old son.

Noorjehan and Hazra appa are listening, offering solutions. For volunteers with Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan (BMMA), counselling is a major part of what they do. I am here with Zakia Soman, co-founder of BMMA, which celebrates 10 years and one lakh members this year.

Earlier that day, sitting in a cool, magenta-curtained room of her 10th-floor apartment, I asked Soman what BMMA’s most significant achievement in these 10 years was. “For the first time, a progressive Muslim feminine voice has emerged,” she said. “For far too long, the community has relegated the right to speak to a conservative, patriarchal set who don’t understand the times, the challenges of liberalisation or technology.”

For women to wrestthe Muslim pulpit is radical indeed. But Soman and BMMA have managed just that. Their latest victory came when the Supreme Court allowed women to enter the sanctum of Mumbai’s famous Haji Ali mosque. “Believe me,” says Zakia, voice low and eyes shining, “on triple talaq too we will win. Not only because of the courts but because 50 to 60 per cent of the community supports us.”

She speaks with the confidence of a leader and an idea whose time has come. A confidence bolstered by the countless men who now support BMMA. Her tone filled with pride, she says, “They call us, mail us, tell us “we are with you”. They send quotes from the Koran that support us.”

Why is this a particularly challenging time for Muslims? Soman explains how “an already poor community is getting increasingly pauperised in the new economy.” The average Muslim has traditionally been in urban small businesses, handed down over generations. “The emphasis on education has always been low. Couple this with the present climate. There’s a psyche of insecurity and fear.”

Soman should know.Her grandfather was a mill worker. The large, lower middle-class joint family lived in a building of four floors, many rooms and no locks. In a small room upstairs, her grandmother and great aunts kept many cloth bundles, potlas . “Much later, as an adult, I realised these potlas contained all the family valuables. They were always packed, ready to be carried. As soon as there was a phone call, “ shehar mein hullar hai (there’s uproar in the city),” the women would pick up a potla each and start walking to the nearest safe area.” A community that had to be always ready to flee.

“In Ahmedabad,” says Soman, “there are many borders… not with another country but where a Hindu locality ends and the Muslim one begins.” I stare in disbelief. She laughs. “We will go later to Jumhapura,” she says, “a large Muslim ghetto. And to give you directions, they will say, “come down this road and just before the border, turn left…””

Soman has many stories, each one haunting. “Many stories, many angles, all inter-connected. Then they dismiss it, saying we are all Indian, we are all one…” With a flash of anger, she says, “We too want it to be true. But it’s not.”

During the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad, Soman was four. “My grandmother and aunts fled and came to Jamalpur, to our house. One image has stayed with me. Curfew would be lifted each morning so that women could buy food. My mother took my brother and me to check our grandmother’s house on the border. It was completely ransacked — the single fan’s blades had been twisted upside down. Cupboards, glasses, windows broken, lights torn down. We stood for a while, then walked back quickly.”

Soman’s absence of bitterness is striking. “None of this entered my psyche. We were still mainstream. We studied in good schools, stayed with friends, friends stayed with us, we got good jobs… Of course, it is also a class thing, but when I look back, I don’t agree with this demonisation of Gujarat. A kind of politics has been experimented with that has succeeded to an extent, but that does not mean all of Gujarat is like that; it’s a mixed bag.”

Later, when Soman’s father decided to buy a flat in what was largely a ‘Hindu’ locality, Azad Society, their friends did their best to protect them. But this flat too was burnt down in the 1990 disturbances. “This broke my father. He finally moved to Paldi, a Muslim area.”

Soman entered social work in 2002, when her husband and she were called to help refugee families camping in a kabristan in Gomtipur. Married then to an abusive and violent man, Soman threw herself into this new task. It was to prove life-changing. “I started talking to the women, helping them. But it was I who was being influenced. They all said “ Humko insaaf mil jaye to humko madad nahi chahiye . (We want justice, not help.)”

That was April 2002. In April 2003, Soman’s marriage ended. “If these women, Class V dropouts, could fight, I realised so could I.”

Soman’s husband divorced her using triple talaq , without a single rupee of mehr


“The work I do with women now… I have been through all that. The Koran grants me fair maintenance, allows me to initiate divorce. But I didn’t know it then. The imams keep all this under wraps.”

Soon, Soman had met Noorjehan, her co-founder at BMMA, and many others. “By 2006, we had arrived at a clarity. Muslim women were being shortchanged in personal life and as citizens. A few rabid, patriarchal men were speaking on the community’s behalf. And they were talking rubbish. We felt the need to raise a voice.”

This clarity helped BMMA hone the ambition of its role. The founders saw themselves as citizens, women, Muslims, with no contradiction in these identities. They sought a larger sphere of influence, and soon realised their potential as community leaders.

As Soman says, “We had by then given 60 years to the male leadership. It was time to build our own. BMMA would lead not only Muslim women, but the entire community.”

The first major change they initiated was to work within both the Islamic and the Constitutional frameworks. “The Muslim woman needs education, healthcare and jobs as citizen rights, but also gender justice within Islam.” The second seminal move was to seek universality. So, they speak up not just for Muslim women, but for all marginalised communities.

I tell Soman this is a significant stance. She agrees. “It’s a declaration that we are mainstream.”

BMMA’s bid to break the stranglehold of patriarchal leadership began strongly when it drafted its own legally-binding marriage contract ( nikkah namah ). Based entirely on the Koran, it makes the man declare any previous marriage. It lays down mehr and maintenance amounts. It eschews triple talaq . Soman gives me a copy and tells me many couples have used this contract.

It’s a much-needed move. Mehr , widely quoted to project Islamic personal law as ‘progressive’, is in reality a cruel joke. Most women are pressurised to declare mehr maaf , waiving of the mehr . Or they are granted ridiculous amounts. Later that afternoon, Shabana tells me her mehr was Rs. 2,500, a paltry sum her husband has refused to pay.

BMMA is also training qazis , 30 so far, and has started Auraton ki Shariat Adalats, or women’s Shariat courts. Since 2014, four such courts have handled 267 cases. Do men have to be dragged in kicking and screaming? “We do exert some pressure,” Soman admits. They call, counsel, threaten and cajole, and when the men realise it is Koranic, they accept the pronouncements.

That has been the magic formula. By sticking closely to the Koran, BMMA has pulled the rug out from under the conservative elements. Soman laughs: “We are not going away from the Koran. We are delving deeper.” 

In 2014, BMMA prepared a draft Muslim personal law, adhering to Koranic and Constitutional values. Is this their response to the demand for a Uniform Civil Code? “We prefer instead that the Muslim personal law first be codified to protect gender justice,” she replies. In parallel, they also want the Special Marriage Act expanded to include divorce, maintenance and custody. “Let this secular alternative be available to every citizen,” Soman says. “But let it not stop the reform of Muslim personal law.”

Codifying Muslim law, or taking away the power of patriarchal interpretations, is the long-term aim. For now, they are fighting it one piece at a time, starting with the abolition of triple talaq and polygamy. When you see the trust and hope in the eyes of women like Shabana and Sakiya, it is obvious that this is a movement that will not look back or be stopped.

(*Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)

The article can be read at The Hindu website here

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