“It’s all nonsense, what’s going on!” says 25-year-old Amina*, a homemaker in Bangalore. Reports from Wednesday suggest that the Central Government is set to draft a law that will not only make triple talaq invalid, but also a criminal offence. The Bill is likely to be tabled in the winter session of Parliament. A committee of ministers has been formed to fine-tune the legislation. Unfortunately, none of them are Muslim women. However, Amina is effusive when trying to establish that this law has nothing to do with her life.
She says, “Triple talaq is not mentioned in the Quran, and it is mentioned in the Hadith in very specific circumstances. Even then, a man doesn’t randomly give talaq and get divorced! This is not a real practice in our community. Only people who don’t read the Quran and don’t practice true Islam fall into such things. Why are we wasting time debating such petty issues?”
It’s been three months since an all-male bench set aside the practice of triple talaq, or instant divorce in Muslim communities, rendering such divorces invalid, and opinions seem to be as strong as ever. It’s always been a controversial issue, given the loaded nature of personal law. There is also the fear of a right-wing government’s attempt to co-opt the struggle of Muslim women to free themselves from this tool for their own political gains.
So how do Muslim women really feel about this new development? Do they feel, like Amina, that this is a non-issue being blown up on TV debates? Or do they welcome the move as a long-awaited change for Muslim women? More importantly, do women feel that the nature of their marriages is going to change without the threat of triple talaq looming over their everyday interactions?
Sarah, a Bangalore-based journalist, thinks this is a welcome development that will shake up a lot of family dynamics. “Through triple talaq, men feel they can threaten at the drop of a hat. So long as they have the power to use triple talaq, it’s like they’re constantly saying, “You know I can send you to your mother’s house at any time, right?”
For Reema, a 27-year-old fashion designer, divorce wasn’t an empty threat, but it didn’t come the triple talaq route. Reema and her husband had a mutually accepted divorce, but she recalls that her husband used to throw the threat of divorce around in fights. At the same time, she wants the world to know that Muslim women have equal rights and powers to divorce in Islam. She’s referring to the practice of khula, a form of divorce where the wife is free to leave without having to pay any money or maintenance, unlike men who give triple talaq.
She still recalls that her husband would often threaten her saying “I should just divorce you this instant.” But she knew that triple talaq wasn’t an accepted reality, so she never took the threat seriously. Reema thinks Muslim men make the threat loosely because they don’t understand the obligations of marriage. “Before Muslim women get married, they read the Quran, they learn and study everything they need to know about marriage beforehand. Muslim men just celebrate with their friends saying they have someone to cook them dinner every day.”
Many Muslim women, when asked about triple talaq, turn to the belief that Islam already contains guidelines for life’s crises, big and small. It’s one of the reasons why they are furious that the government is now trying to pass laws that interfere in their most personal matters.
Alia, a homemaker from Bangalore, asserts that Islam already has many in-built protections for Muslim women. “In triple talaq, a man has to return to the wife’s family the expenses they paid on the wedding. If a woman takes khula, she doesn’t have the right to claim any money or maintenance back. In many cases, women don’t take the option of khula and wait for triple talaq because they know that they won’t get their money if they take that route.”
Taking a different view on the issue, Dr Kala Balasubramanian, a marriage counsellor at Bangalore’s Inner Dawn Counselling Center who counsels Muslim couples, thinks removing the looming spectre of triple talaq can help women feel more secure and confident. “You need security and belonging in a marriage, and a tool like triple talaq is like having a Damocles sword over your head all the time.
Sarah believes that this development will influence norms outside marriage too. She believes it will make families more confident when their daughters marry. She says that this tool was the reason why Muslim women were raised by their parents to be quiet and docile. “Until now, mothers would tell their daughters, “Don’t try to be Jhansi ki Rani, be Allah ki gaai”, After this rule, mothers don’t have to tutor their daughters to not be be bold and don’t talk. They’ll say you have a legal right. If you face any injustice, raise your voice.”
She also floats the intriguing possibility of it having the opposite effect, similar to the kind of backlash Susan Faludi documented in the wake of second-wave feminism in the West. She wonders if losing this power would make Muslim men feel threatened and insecure, and increase the desirability of uncommonly quiet women. “Maybe after this decision, there will be more demand for such girls and Muslim girls will be taught even more not to be the ones who ask for their rights.”
Muslim women activists who have been working in the field for several years also have similarly complex and contradictory views on the matter, but they have clear ideas about what shape they want the August judgement to take.
On Thursday, we spoke with Hasina Khan, of the Bebaak Collective, a Muslim women’s rights group, just as she was returning from a press conference in Mumbai, where the collective publicly opposed the government’s decision to make triple talaq a criminally punishable offence. “This criminal offence act won’t have a good impact on any kind of healthy relationship,” she says. “The insecurity and threat of divorce? Every marriage [in every religion] has it. But triple talaq is not an offence. We are very opposed to this, and many Muslim women came together today to oppose it because the government should implement the judgement through awareness programs, and various kinds of agencies to educate and inform Muslim women, and give them guidance. Not this.”
She believes the government is going beyond the SC judgement. “The mindset that the government is taking is that divorce is a crime. The SC judgement set aside triple talaq and said it’s not valid. Sarkar yeh keh raha ki agar husband divorce kar raha hain toh crimes mein daal denge. They’re overdoing it.”
Noorjehan Safia of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, on the other hand, thinks that criminalisation is a meaningful actualisation of the judgement for which Muslim women have fought so hard. “BMMA has always said if somebody does give an oral divorce, the Domestic Violence Act should apply. The punishment described there is applicable. That’s how it is in other personal laws, there are punishments for polygamy, underage marriage, in POCSO and the DV Act. So why such a big hue and cry about triple talaq being made into a punishable offence?”
She says she doesn’t know if it will affect the dynamics between husbands and wives right away, but adds that it doesn’t matter if there’s no translation into immediate action. “The question is, how do we make gender justice available to women. How do we ensure she continues to get her maintenance, her house, her access to matrimonial property, the custody and maintenance of her children? Those are aspects that need to be assured by the law. If a husband does land up giving a divorce and if he isn’t hauled up for it, how will it help the women? Men are continuing to give divorces to women as recently as yesterday. If the man continues to get this message from the state and society – ‘De doh, kya hoga?’ – then the poor woman will continue to run around asking for maintenance, custody, all her rights, and he will be as free as he was when the law was not there.”
She nods to the many complex issues around this development, and specifically, to the widespread concern that the government is using the issue as an excuse to persecute Muslim men. “That fear of how the State will use it against Muslim men is always there. We are also concerned about Muslim men, but what about the concerns of Muslim women? We know the attitude the government has. Of course we are aware. But legal protection of Muslim women has to be made concrete. Otherwise what’s the point of codification, if there’s no fear of law?”
Co-published with Firstpost.