Date: 20 May 2008



By R. Upadhyay 

Whenever talk revolves around gender equality, women's right or their empowerment people are found to be indifferent toward 70 million Muslim women in India who have been facing the most humiliating aspect of their lives like polygamy and divorce. They are compelled to bear this pang of social humiliation for centuries under the water tight compartment of Shariat (Islamic law). A number of Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, Morocco and Indonasia have already reformed this medieval law and allowed much freedom to their women citizens befitting the rapidly changing social environment all over the world. However, the diehard Mullhas in the name of Muslim identity still maintain that Shariat is a permanent ingredient of Islam which is not subject to any scrutiny. Therefore, Muslim women owing to the deeper and different layer of discrimination under this law are more vulnerable than their counterparts in other religions. In the absence of any law to protect their rights under the provision of gender equality in the constitution the larger majority of them are destined to the fate of 'Gudiya' and 'Imrana'.

Erosion of Muslim Women's right in India as pointed out in 'The study of Muslim women in India -"Inching towards Equality" suggested that "Muslim Personal Law as practiced in India contravenes the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in several respect". Article 5(a) of the CEDAW asks all states to take appropriate measures for "elimination of prejudices and customary and other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotype rules for men and women".

India ratified the CEDAW in 1993 but declared its reservation on this particular article on the plea of its conformity with its policy of non-interference in the personal affairs of any community without its initiative and consent. 
Although larger majority of Muslim women are silent due to suppressed state of mind and educational backwardness, a section of educated women in the community is found to be expressing views against the stand of the Islamists. In conformity with the provision of gender equality in the Indian Constitution, articles of CEDAW and commonly understood basic spirit of equality and justice for women in Islam they maintain that Muslim Personal Laws as practiced in India are against these provisions and have come forward in exploring the possibilities to bring about progressive changes in the customary practice of Shariat.

Sayeda Saiyidain Hameed, convener of the Muslim Women's forum in her article "Adultery in Islam" dated September 13, 2002 maintained that "Islam does not sanction the punishment of stoning to death for adultery". She has quoted Surah 17, Al Isra verse 32 and Surah 24 Al Nur, verse 2 to prove her point. 
Disgusted with the indifference of the democratic institutions towards their cause some of the Muslim women activists took initiative to fight for their cause and formed a separate All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board (AIMWPLB) parallel to All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) in February 2005 with Shaista Ambar as President,  Parveen Abidi General Secretary, thirteen-member executive committee, 42 members and 22-member advisory committee. With main focus on resolving the marital problems like divorce, maintenance and desertion of wives by husbands, the avowed objectives of the board include employment generation for women, marriage of destitute girls, equal rights to the daughters in ancestral properties etc. Parveen Abidi maintained that "Muslim women are doubly disadvantaged as the Maulanas never come to the rescue of harassed, divorced or victimized women while the administration refuses to interfere terming it a religious matter" (India Together dated 21 September 2006).
AIMPLB refused to recognize the separate personal law board for Muslim women and its senior member Maulana Sajjad Nomani termed its formation as a 'joke'. However, AIMWPLB is not ready to back out of its commitment. In fact it refused to accept the fatwa of Darul Uloom Deoband annulling the marriage of Imrana who was raped by her father-in-law and supported the victim in her legal battle in which the accused was convicted for ten years imprisonment by the district court. Demanding separate mosque for women AIMWPLB has even released a separate Nikahnama (Marriage deed) on March 16, 2008 which rejects divorce through SMS, e-mail or phone and also recognized the right of the Muslim women to seek divorce (Khula) are the guidelines for marriage under the Shariat for bride and groom. The key issues of new Nikahnama are as under: 
Triple talaq said in one go will not be acceptable
Talaq to be spaced out over a period of 3 months
Talaq not to be allowed via phone or SMS
New Nikahnama insists on free will for the girl in case of nikah
Talaq cannot be given under the influence of alcohol
Talaq given to pregnant woman should be considered illegal
Although, in absence of some effective and assertive leadership the voice of AIMWPLB  is yet to jerk the conscience of the community or to draw due attention of political class or media, the issue has at least attracted the people believing in the concept of gender equality. Since AIMWPLB is facing the challenge mainly from AIMPLB, All India Ulema Councils and the Maulanas, the leadership in the women board needs the support of the masses so that they could put pressure on the political class in the contry to initiate dialogue with them. As the board is fighting on the basis of the gender equality provision of Indian constitution it should also initiate a dilogue with the government for implementation of article 44 of the constittution regarding uniform Civil Code in the country. A Supreme Court order in October 2007 has made the registration of marriages mandatory for all and this could be another rallying point for the Muslim women.
Much publicised introduction of Women's Reservation Bill in Rajya Sabha is an attempt for empowerment of women but it is doubtful that Mullhas would allow their women to derive its benefit by reforming the Shariat. The historical surrender of state power to the pressure of Islamists in Shahbano case in mid nineteen eighties by amending the constitution and neutalising the Supreme Court judgment was a signal of its helplessness towards the cause of Muslim women. In fact the state power owing to the mutual profit game between Mullhas and the vote-seeking political class is indifferent towards a sizeable section of its citizens simply on the plea that it is committed to the principle of non-interference in the personal laws of   any community. Now the time has come for the Muslim women to come forward and put pressure on the government for intervention in the anti-women laws of Shariat. Once they take the lead the non-Muslim organisations in the country would also support their cause for social evolution in conformity with the changing global scenario. 
 (The Author can be reached at e-mail ramashray60@rediffmail.com)