By Sanober Umar *
The ugly patriarchal politics of ‘Triple Talaq’ or unilateral ‘instant divorce’ through which Indian Muslim men (specifically Sunnis who follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence), can divorce their wives by pronouncing the word ‘talaq’ thrice in a single sentence, has appeared once again in mainstream politics. In this board game played over Muslim women, you have two main players. On the one hand you have the ever-so-vocal and self-proclaimed representatives of Muslims – The All Indian Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) – and on the other hand, you have right-wing public figures of Hindutva, including our very own Prime Minister Mr. Modi, shedding tears of concern for Muslim women’s rights.
However Muslim women should not be deemed as agentless victims in this plot, and many are raising their voice against this practice by asserting their Koranic rights. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that while AIMPLB and Hindutva politics may seem to be polar opposites, the two have much more in common when it comes to curbing or denying Muslim women their rights. The male dominated AIMPLB is clearly vested in its project of misogyny even at the cost of denying Muslim women their Islamic right of longer procedures of divorce, that allow time and space for reasonable consideration before annulling a marriage. On the other hand, Hindutva men are no saviours of Muslim women either, as many instances both past and present have shown – including the recent spates of rape and murders ( the Haryana rapes and murders by Gau Rakshaks )and not to forget, the horrifying Muzaffarnagar violence not too long ago).
It is imperative to mention here that the kind of divorce proceedings that the AIMPLB vociferously supports is not only not followed by many sects among Muslims in India including the second largest sect of Indian Muslims, the Shias; but also not in twenty-one other Muslim dominant countries or Islamic states, including Algeria, Turkey and Bangladesh and Pakistan, which have abolished regressive practices such as triple talaaq. It is important to listen to what Indian Muslim women have to say about their own needs and rights, and how they are articulating these. Many directly seek guidance and justice through their recourse to the Koran, in effect not turning necessarily to a secular cosmology for their rights, but one that they maintain that their religion already guarantees them. However more than 50,000 women have been compelled to petition to the courts for justice that they derive from their religion, due to the unethical high-handedness of Muslim patriarchs. Misogynists from AIMPLB continue to slander these individual Muslim activists and organizations such as Bazmee Khwateen, Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan and the All Indian Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board, in a bid to override their legitimate demands. Even if these men from the Ulema concede that the demands of these women are within the Islamic tradition, they still insist on keeping an anti-women tradition alive, as self-assigned representatives of the Indian Muslim community in India. However, here is where an even more important question arises – who gave AIMPLB the right to declare themselves as spokesperson for the Muslim community?
It comes as a surprise to many that the AIMPLB is just an NGO. It does not hold any power by itself in relation to the State. It has however managed to garner popular support since the 1985 Shah Bano case, which many have noted transpired in a context where the Congress Party which was at the Centre at the time, overlooked the voices of progressive and reformist Muslims. Not a single member of the AIMPLB has been democratically elected. It is a body of mostly handpicked Muslim men who join the ranks simply based on their self-projection as scholars of Islam or social connections, with a large following of poor Muslims, many of whom as mentioned earlier, are too illiterate to even know the depths of debates and dialogues in their own faith, and therefore follow whatever these imams have to say especially at a time when they feel vulnerable as minorities in an increasingly radicalized Hindutva State. Ultimately, the Indian State historically has been conspicuously active in erasing Muslim women’s rights by according a degree of legitimacy to AIMPLB which can be over-ridden easily if the State chooses to do so, especially given how Muslim women’s rights are being evaded in such a blatant fashion and against their constitutional rights as Indian individuals.Meanwhile, the right-wing Hindu BJP claims that it cares for Indian Muslim women, which is news for Indian Muslim women themselves.
Modi in a recent speech, shedding tears for Indian Muslim women, made remarks about how the Muslim community must come together and discuss this issue to guarantee rights for women facing misogynistic oppression through laws like the triple talaq. One may certainly agree with our Prime Minister on this point. It only seems to be a fair demand. But the politics of Muslim marginalization in India is interwoven with Hindutva demonization of the community, including positing themselves as being the bastions of women’s rights when the truth is far from it. One cannot help but wonder why our Prime Minister remains silent, let alone shed tears, for Muslim women who suffer from the violence of Hindu right-wingers? Muslim women have been brutally tortured and killed in several riots by Hindus since our Prime Minister came to power. Justice still remains to be sought for the women victims of Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar and Haryana very recently. It should not come as a surprise than that many within the Muslim community have noted this hypocrisy and taken it to social media, reminding our Prime Minister of his silence in cases such as Mewat rapes, the trauma that Bilkis Bano and several other women underwent during the Gujarat riots, Insha Malik who lost her vision in Kashmir during peaceful protests or Najeeb’s mother still searching for her son who disappeared after Hindutva goons beat him up in JNU recently. In fact, Mr. Modi’s tears is one of the premises that AIMPLB uses to its leverage when it claims that the State wants to infringe the community’s collective identity, but does not care about its interests or intervene in other situations that demand institutional inclusion and protection of minorities.
However now that Prime Minister Modi is on board for the rights of women by expressing concern especially for minority Muslim women, one would hope that our PM would extend the same empathy to his own wife, Jashodaben, whom he abandoned after his marriage. After all, the personal is political as many feminists have observed, and he would set a good example for men and women in the whole country with such a gesture of kindness towards women in his personal life. Right? Reiterating the thread of this article in sum: the Ulema of AIMPLB wants to protect Muslim patriarchy and maintain its power among the largely illiterate population of Indian Muslims, and Hindutva figures want to malign Islam in order to demonize a discriminated minority while omitting their own oppression of Muslim women. They both need each other to mutually constitute and reaffirm each other’s power and popularity in their voter demographics. One is a non-State actor, and other is the government itself.But Indian Muslim women are not in the fringes of this debate anymore, and they are finding ways to empower themselves as women and as Muslims, who carry the burden of being a ‘double minority’ in spaces occupied by misogynists on the one hand and hypocrites on the other.
* This blogpost was written by Sanober Umar. It first appeared in Kafila.
Sanober is a PhD student in History at Queen’s University in Canada.