Zakia Soman, Founder member, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan & Core Committee Member of SAAPE
Women continue to remain second class beings everywhere and particularly in South Asia although there is a greater degree of awareness about womens’ rights and need for empowerment today. We celebrate Women’s Day annually but the condition of women in most countries remains bad. On the one hand, the grip of patriarchy is getting tighter as is visible in all spheres of life. The silver lining is that there are increasing number of women who are standing up to injustice, violence and subjugation. Women are demanding to be heard at home and outside of homes. In India the muslim women joined the fight against patriarchy in the last over ten years in large numbers.
In the current decade, legal victories in the Haji Ali women’s entry case and the triple talaq case have become important milestones in Muslim women’s struggle for gender justice in my country. These legal battles were won because of sustained efforts and engagement by thousands of women who wanted to be heard and to be treated as equal human beings. India muslim women have been unequivocal – I am an equal muslim and equal citizen of India. Personally, I look at this journey with excitement and a degree of exhaustion. There have been many factors that contributed to the excitement and equally to the sense of exhaustion. For me, it began as a personal journey to freedom and self-worth in the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat. The collective thinking, collective experiences, collective emotions – the ehsaas, the collective energies and bonding of muslim women for gender justice made it a fulfilling and enriching mission. We have come a long way from 1986 when a lone voice of Shah Bano was crushed by all – family, community, society, government. The muslim women’s movement today is about making all of these forces accountable to gender justice injunctions of the Quran as well as the Constitution.
Indian muslims have been living with poverty, educational and economic backwardness, social backwardness and political exclusion and manipulation. Despite the constitutional safeguards India’s largest minority is marginalized on all human development indices and has suffered communal violence consistently since independence. Not surprisingly, nobody wants to talk about the condition and injustice to muslim women. But that changed with muslim women themselves deciding to take up their own issues democratically through education, dialogue, campaign, legal battles and pressurizing the elected representatives. Our initial years were devoted fully to activism around education, livelihoods, relief for riot-affected families, lobbying parliamentarians, preparing draft family law etc. It was around 2009 and 2010 when few thousand women had enrolled as members and we had made some ground level impact when women started coming to us with the complaints about being thrown out of homes after unilateral instant divorce or triple talaq. We could not continue to work on obtaining educational scholarships or filling widow pension forms while shutting our eyes to this social malaise. It became clear that abolition of triple talaq should be the first step in the reform of muslim personal law. The triple talaq petition reached the Supreme Court much later in 2016. The ground was prepared by ordinary women who were active towards social reform and education. Post cards by thousands of women were mailed to the President of India in 2010. Over 500 women survivors from different states participated in our national conference calling for abolition of triple talaq in 2012. In a national study conducted by us in 2015, an overwhelming number of women called for abolition of triple talaq.
The excitement was about women coming together and demanding change. The excitement was also about women challenging patriarchal male authority over religion and demanding equality. The women were rejecting the misinterpretations and distortions that had led to triple talaq becoming the commonest method of divorce in the community in our country. Women questioning triple talaq were aware that this method is not sanctioned by the Quran. They were educated about the Quranic stress on dialogue, mediation and arbitration between husband and wife before a divorce takes place. They were educated about the Quranic injunctions of justice and fairness in divorce. They knew that they were entitled to justice as Muslims and as citizens and therefore the petition in the Supreme Court. The support of the Indian public to the triple talaq campaign was truly heartening. We were flooded with phone calls, emails, speaking invites, donation offers by several unknown Indians. Not only did more and more Muslim women and men join the struggle, an overwhelming support came from those from different faith backgrounds. Several women in the media made it their personal cause as did so many men!
This excitement was not shared by all; this included some secularist friends. They kept on saying, where is the need to enter religion when the Constitution offers equality to all! It was hard labour to explain to them that the same Constitution also allows for right to religious freedom. They failed to appreciate the social and cultural milieu in which ordinary women live! Indeed the patriarchal forces such as the Muslim personal law board would have been happiest if we were to cede the religious realm to them like earlier! There were personal attacks on many of us. They did not spare my husband and my son whom they dragged in Whatsapp messages that were circulated widely. According to them my husband being a Hindu and my son being self-declared atheist on his Facebook page proves that I am a puppet of the RSS. The Congress and other so-called secular political parties maintained silence or ambiguity on the triple talaq issue. The BJP’s desire to take credit for abolition of triple talaq is not surprising given the fact that none of the political parties cared to come out openly against triple talaq! Some well-known scholars had trouble accepting new leadership coming up! They were unable to accept that Muslim women were leading their own struggle without dependence on their scholarship. They stand thoroughly exposed and their insecurities are now public! Lastly but importantly, a huge brouhaha was made over the fact of the right-wing BJP government being at the Centre. But the question of gender justice for Muslim women within family predates 2014. Besides no time is the right time for gender justice! Triple talaq, polygamy, halala have been prevalent amongst Indian Muslims despite the Quranic injunctions of 1400 years ago. Muslim women have been demanding justice much before 2014. The legal discrimination of Muslim women in family matters is singular. The Indian parliament has passed multiple laws beginning 1955 to protect Hindu women in marriage and family. The parliament also enabled amendments in marriage and divorce laws to benefit Christian women. India’s elected representatives have failed Muslim women and indeed all women by non-enactment of a Muslim family law. The politicians, religious leaders and legal scholars who jumped into the fray post 2014 were nowhere in the picture when Muslim women were struggling for justice all these years. The democratic struggle of Muslim women for gender justice provided a befitting reply to the hypocrisy and double standards practiced by all the dominant sections of society. And the fact that Muslim women were supported by all Indian women made this struggle historical.