By Tanya Kini
Originally published on 7 September 2016.
The Supreme Court this week granted the Centre four weeks to respond to a batch of petitions it is hearing on aspects of Muslim Personal Law as it pertains to women. The SC had taken suo motu cognisance of the question of women facing discrimination under Muslim Personal Law, including the controversial divorce practice of “triple talaq”, following which a number of petitions were filed.
Last Friday, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court that has drawn plenty of criticism, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board said — among many things — that triple talaq is considered a “sin” and the “least appreciated form of ending a marriage”, but Shariat (Muslim personal law) permits it. This is the same case with polygamy, which it says is “not even desirable”. The AIMPLB reiterated its stand that personal law could not be interpreted by the courts, but had to be dealt with by Parliament.
Hasina Khan, the founder of Bebaak Collective — an umbrella of Muslim women’s groups — and her fellow members agree that certain aspects of Muslim Personal Law are discriminatory, and published a statement challenging the affidavit that the AIMPLB had submitted to the Supreme Court, in which they “emphasize on acknowledgement of women’s rights which are otherwise controlled in the name of religion, purity or chastity or even in the garb of ‘protecting’ women.” “This statement is not only an emphatic resistance to the religious organisations like All India Muslim Personal Board but also a call to reiterate feminist vision of gender just laws for Muslim women who are also rightfully Indian citizens,” they say.
We spoke to Khan to ask her more about Bebaak and their reponse to the affidavit and the current scrutiny of Muslim Personal Law.
Could you tell me more about the Bebaak Collective and what it does?
Bebaak means fearless or without any fear in Urdu, and the Bebaak Collective is exactly that. Over the past three years, we have been a group of women’s groups across India where we work with Muslim women in different states to discuss issues that affect their daily life. Through writing and learning, we want to build a different perspective, a feminist perspective and ask society to take notice of Muslim women and their problems.
We recently organised a convention in the national capital on the 27th and 28th of February, 2016 called Musalman ki Awaaz: Sadak se Sansad tak with the convention focussed on four issues: right wing impact on the Muslim community, Sachar committee report, equal citizenship and social security. More than 400 women attended the convention where we discussed issues like the treatment of minorities in India due to the beef ban and concepts like love jihad and their effects on how Muslim women were being perceived in the eyes of society.
What was your initial reaction to the affidavit by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board?
Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. We have been in close association with the AIMPLB for the past 20 years, trying to make them understand the need for equality of personal law rights between Muslim men and women. But they are wholly male-dominated and male centric and nothing has changed. We are not talking about what is there in the Quran but whatever is there in the personal law. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution says that the state cannot deny anyone their equality. Therefore, the Supreme Court and state courts shouldn’t be listening to the affidavit because it goes against an entire section of the Muslim community – the Muslim women. We are looking at women’s rights from a feminist perspective and our position on triple talaq is not dependent on whether religious scriptures validate it or not because we oppose the practice anyway.
In your condemnation of the affidavit, you respond to the statements by the board, including one where they say women lack the power to make good decisions. What do you think it says about the board’s general attitude to women?
They sound very stupid when they say that women lack decision making qualities. What about those women who stand for elections or our constitutional and fundamental rights that allow us to vote? Are we completely stupid that we cannot make decisions for ourselves? They believe that when it comes to matters pertaining to personal law, they are the face of the community and their statements are the ones that should be heard. The problem is that their view comes from a male-centric world which doesn’t work in this day and age.
Could you tell us more about the growing number of women’s petitions challenging triple talaq that you mention in your statement?
Besides us, there are about 10 women’s groups from Delhi, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra that have submitted petitions against the ideas of triple talaq, polygamy and halala. Halala is the practice of a divorced woman re-marrying her first husband, because the first husband regrets divorcing the wife, provided she marries another man after her first husband divorces her and sleeps with her second husband who then needs to divorce her. The AIMPLB believe that this causes more damage to the man than the woman since he has to live with the regret of his mistake. You tell me, after hearing this description, who does it affect more?
The reason why so many women’s groups are submitting petitions because Muslim women have different identities and live in different realities. We cannot have one common personal law for all Muslim women.
You mention envisioning a “gender just law for the community where women’s question of social security and rights promised by the Indian Constitution will be practised.” What would such a gender justice law involve?
I’m repeating this for everyone who thinks that we are talking about redefining our religion. We do not want to change the tenets of religion but we do want to change Muslim personal law to include the rights and wishes of Muslim women from all over the country. For this, we need to make everyone aware of the different types of Muslim women that exist in this country. Muslim identity is not monolithic and they have multiple realities of identities, varied understandings of family structures and also diverse practices. The gender justice law should treat both Muslim men and women equally and also all the sections of the Muslim women community equally. Therefore, codification of personal law will not serve this diversity of identity. We envisage a gender just law which questions the patriarchal power and also ensures rights even for those who do not necessarily fit into traditional norms of family system which is based on kinship and bloodline.
For example, the issue of property rights for single women and the issue of child custody for separated women either from divorce or other circumstances. These are the different realities that exist for Muslim women that need to be taken into account when drafting a gender justice law under the Muslim personal law.