By Zain Anwar
The practice of triple talaq – in which a husband can divorce his wife by uttering “talaq” thrice – is back in the news, causing turbulent debates on prime-time television in India. But it is plain for everyone, Muslims or otherwise, to see the political opportunism on all sides disguised as women’s empowerment.
First ignited in the late 1980s by Rajiv Gandhi whose government injudiciously intervened to quash the Supreme Court’s pro-woman decision on the Shah Bano case, the topic of triple talaq was picked up by the poster boys of Hindutva politics, led by BJP, who gained political mileage by blaming the Congress party of minority appeasement. It’s an image that the Grand Old Party of Indian politics continues to fight.
Ever since, the debate over triple talaq has been low-lying fruit for the BJP. Most recently, it came up before the elections in Uttar Pradesh. Television channels were filled with loud voices, both attacking and defending the issue.
Though the practice is banned across several Islamic theocracies in the world, India’s Muslim Personal Law Board came out in defence of it. The counter argument was led by the Narendra Modi-led BJP government, who also garnered support from several liberal and feminist organisations.
In the midst of these vehement views, the most ignored voice is the one that the debate professes to empower: that of Muslim women.
Having systematically denied women entry to religious spaces, men have controlled and filtered the knowledge of Islam. Women grow up internalising a patriarchal interpretation of Islam, which they are forbidden to question. They do not even dare ask whether the practice of oral talaq was actually a part of Quranic traditions. (It isn’t.)
“My husband divorced me through a letter. I had two sons to bring up. My elders tried to mediate but my husband wouldn’t take me back. So I lived with my brother for a while, and then remarried for the sake of my children,” says a Lucknow resident requesting anonymity, adding, “It is too big a system for us to challenge. We do as the elders say.”
Ambreen Fatma, a student from Agra, has her own theory on why Muslim women defend the practice of triple talaq despite suffering for it. “The movement has been started by a political party that we suspect of damaging our cultural values. We have been constantly fed that our identity is under threat, and this appeared like yet another instance.”
Her sister, Arsheen, has the opposite viewpoint, and believes such an archaic practice should be done away with, no matter who is leading the call for action. With fury, she says, “Women can no longer give any excuse for their ignorance. They have access to radio, television and internet. If nothing, they have their own intellect to rely on. Should we not stand against what we feel is unjust?”
Sumbal, an Indian based in Melbourne, offers another perspective. “We do need changes, but we don’t need them forced down our throat. Genuine change has to come from within. If the debate was started by a Muslim woman, I would have lent my voice to it. Why should I support somebody’s political strategy?”
Indian Muslims are not a monolith body. Divided by culture and education, Muslim women present a vivid thought-spectrum. They are not afraid of change; it is only the game-changers they suspect.
Indian history is filled with examples of common people who took it upon themselves to start a revolution. Sati, for instance, was not just abolished by a British law, but was eradicated through the genuine and well-meaning persuasions of several Indian thinkers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy. But Muslim women are still searching for a revolutionary they can call their own.