Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

Triple Talaq to Haj Subsidy: Shaping the Future of Muslim Women in India

“Our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (italics mine).”

This is a sentence from the famous Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863. It had successfully changed the narrative of the American history and marked the beginning of modern day free democracy. In this famous 272-word Gettysburg address, Lincoln had also underlined that the ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ shall not perish from the earth.

The Gettysburg address has been described as a milestone in American history because of its sheer nature and faith in the ideals of equality and justice.

In fact, this remarkable address by Abraham Lincoln, made at the cemetery of the soldiers who died protecting the value and sprit of the American constitution, has been rendered more important in history than the battle itself.

It was an altogether novel spirit and a new system of values which led the American President to state ‘…all men are created equal’, thus ending the system of slavery prevalent in the American society and charting a new road-map for the African-Americans living in the country.

Why I began with a reference to the Gettysburg address of President Lincoln is that I, as a student of history, found the same spirit and same determination in Prime Minister Narendra Modi when I heard him, declaring from the Red Fort, that Indian Muslim women should have the same rights and facilities that the Constitution of India guarantees to other sections of the population. With my little sense of history and understanding of how the dynamics of gender equality operates in our country, I compare and equate Narendra Modi’s Lal Quilla Speech with the Gettysburg address of Abraham Lincoln as both these addresses serve as milestones in history; promising to usher in a new phase in the history of their respective countries, ensuring equality and justice for the human being above everything else.

Imagine any statesman or a government elsewhere in the world, trying to initiate a substantial change in the lives of ten crore people through reforms. This would have been considered as a phenomenon in social history. Narendra Modi undertook the same heroic or Herculean task, of trying to free Indian Muslim women from the shackles of age old tradition and customs.

You might find my comparison weird or a bit too far-fetched; but I reaffirm my position that Narendra Modi’s speech and the commitment of his government to liberate Indian Muslim women from the shackles of patriarchal oppression in the name of religious custom, is actually a process of liberating nearly ten crore Indian Muslim women from a position of virtual slavery.

I can give you numerous examples to show how Indian Muslim women suffer the status of virtual slavery in the name of instant triple talaq, or the Muslim Personal Law. Even Shayara Bano of Kashipur, Uttarakhand, who has played a pivotal role in the movement in recent times, had apologetically explained, “Mere purey khandan mein kisi ka kabhi talaq nahi hua hai”( No one in my entire family has gone through a divorce before me).

Tradition teaches women to suffer silently at the hands of patriarchy. Salima Khatun (name changed), a poor homemaker from Birbhum district of West Bengal, had helped her poorer parents with a paltry sum of twenty rupees, a money she had sent through her brother when he came to visit her. The enraged husband, a daily labourer, abandoned Salima on this excuse of disobedience. Another young woman had stepped out of home to buy a dozen of glass bangles before Id, without the permission of her husband. She was also served an instant triple talaq by the enraged husband as a punishment for her obstinacy. Could slavery be worse?

But examples are examples. Let us consider certain figures.

Muslims comprise a little more than twenty crore in the 120 crore total population of India, and half of these are women. Ten crore is a huge number, comprising a population larger than the total population of many European countries, and greater than the cumulative population of the top five cities of the world.

Imagine any statesman or a government elsewhere in the world, trying to initiate a substantial change in the lives of ten crore people through reforms. This would have been considered as a phenomenon in social history. Narendra Modi undertook the same heroic or Herculean task, of trying to free Indian Muslim women from the shackles of age old tradition and customs.

‘Triple Talaq’ apparently is a small word, but it carries with it very great implications of gender oppression and violence. It has been an open sword, dangling over the heads of Muslim women, transforming their status to that of slaves under the Muslim patriarchy. Even where arbitrary triple talaq is not exercised, the very threat to which the woman is subjected, can be understood to be gross emotional violence for the wife subjecting her life to perpetual insecurity, and therefore, no better than a slave in practice [Emotional violence, we may recall here, is a major component of violence in the PWDVA, 2005 ].

Those of us who have seen the Muslim society from inside know how these ‘threats of arbitrary abandonment’ in the name of a religious custom, drown the ‘voices’ of Muslim women, strategically marginalizing them and pushing them further into the secluded corners of the household, rendering them into social non-entities in the name of purdah, so that they are finally excluded and peacefully forgotten by the rest of the society!

‘Liberal’ historians like Ramachandra Guha, have often paradoxically, bitterly criticized the Modi Government, but have praised Virat Kohli for his consistency and batting mettle in tough situations. Like Guha, many cricket analysts rank Virat kohli higher than Sachin Tendulkar, the God of Indian cricket, for his consistency in the 22 yard pitch. I would like to apply the same theory and parameters in judging and evaluating the will and determination of this government in liberating Indian Muslim women.

Just after the triple talaq movement, came the suggestion of the Central Haj Committee to allow Muslim women above 45 years to go for Haj without a male guardian of mahram. The principal opposition Party, Congress, has criticized the central government for its claim of giving this opportunity to Indian Muslim women for the first time. According to the claim of the Congress, it has been done in compliance with the reform initiated by the Government of Saudi Arabia and that the present Government in India has no right to claim a pioneering role for this decision.

If only we go back a few months and flip through the pages of the newspapers in October 2017, when the Central Haj Committee, first announced their recommendation that Indian Muslim women, above 45 years of age and in groups of four, would be permitted to travel for Haj without mahram, you will see the sharp resistance it evoked from the quarters of Deoband and other Muslim clerics.

Did any Congress leader at that time oppose or condemn the approach of the Muslim orthodoxy regarding the Haj Committee’s decision? Did they utter any single word supporting the right of Muslim women to travel for Haj without a male guardian?

No. And, how could they?

A senior minister of the former UPA Government, Kapil Sibal stood in the Supreme Court, defending the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), an NGO which has gained considerable reputation, or disrepute I must say, in recent times for its regressive stand on the rights of Muslim women. Sibal had even defended triple talaq as a 1400 year old custom and therefore deserving deepest veneration.

Salman Khurshid, however, did not appear on behalf of the AIMPLB, but acted as amicus curiae, on being asked by the Supreme Court. In his submission before the Supreme Court, Khurshid is said to have opined triple talaq as one revocable talaq. But he did not say a word about it in public. We have not heard a public statement from Salman Khurshid after the Constitutional Bench gave the historic verdict, terming triple talaq as unconstitutional on August 22, 2017.

The Congress leaders have attested to their displeasure on the verdict as we also saw their reaction to the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill after its introduction in the Parliament.

We have seen examples of ‘secular’ ‘liberal’ Muslim politicians in India, who for instance, married to a Christian, a noted journalist from the English Press, would ritually convert her to Islam after marriage and made to abide by all Sharia rules. The personal becomes political as such micro-narratives within the domestic space transform into larger macro-narratives of support for the orthodoxy and resistance to any change in favour of women.

It was thus when Narendra Modi was consistent and determined to take the next step forward by allowing Muslim women to go for Haj without mahram, the entire Congress leadership turned into a great band of silent actors, without uttering a single word in favour of Muslim women.

This is only an attempt to rob the government of the credit due to it for this momentous reform. I regard this right to travel for Haj without mahram as a major step in the empowerment of Muslim women, even though starting from a religious premise.

It is also likely to increase the self-esteem and confidence of these women. The idea that it is possible to do something by themselves, be it a religious pilgrimage, without male guardianship, will mould the future of Indian Muslim women very positively, in the days to come. It is indeed a very positive indication that1300 women will travel for Haj this year, the largest number of women-pilgrims coming from Kerala and West Bengal.

As a student of history, I can always give references from the days of the freedom struggle of India to the modern day Parliamentary democracy of how the Congress leadership has always surrendered to the pressure from the Muslim orthodoxy and patriarchy. It started from Gandhiji’s endorsing of the Khilafat Movement into the Indian freedom struggle to Nehru’s decision to continue with the discriminatory colonial Muslim Personal law, the Shariat Application Act, Act 26 of 1937, vis-à-vis the newly drafted Constitution of India which in its Preamble ensured “Equality of status and of opportunity”, to all sections of the population.

Let us not go so far back in history.

I would like to take a flashback in the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi was ruling with an absolute majority in the Parliament and decided to overturn the Shah Bano verdict by introducing a new ordinance.

What could have been more horrific for the Indian Muslim women than this?

Coming to the point of maintenance, it is ironical and paradoxical that the Congress leadership is now raising the point that if the offender husband is imprisoned for three years as punishment for arbitrary triple talaq, how will he provide for the maintenance of his wife?

Give me one instance where a Muslim man in India has provided for the maintenance of his divorced wife, if he has provided it at all, beyond the compulsory period of waiting, or iddat? This is because he is not required by customary law to provide for the maintenance of his wife beyond the period of iddat. With great hope, I look forward to the future of women, and the future of Muslim women in India, who have been empowered by the Supreme Court verdict of the Bench of Justices R Banumathi and M Santanagoudar which set an alimony benchmark, i.e., 25% of the ex-husband’s net salary, ensuring “a dignified life for the ex-wife”.

As a Bollywood enthusiast, I often feel that the political leadership in our country, the Congress and others, love to see Indian Muslim women in the stereotypical role as portrayed in B R Chopra’s legendary film, Nikaah. Entrapped and enslaved by what is glorified as religious, and therefore would even be a sacrilege to think of changing it, Muslim women would remain the perpetual victim, iconically romanticized by the lyrics of “Dil ki arman ansuon me bahe gaye”, and that she can never wipe her overflowing tears and decide to rise up for herself, claiming her rights to an equal world.

Otherwise, in the fifteen years of Congress-NCP rule in Maharashtra, have you ever heard that they are proposing any change in the patriarchal dictats in the Haji Ali darga? Why did Muslim women have to wait till a Devendra Fadnavis led Government came in Mumbai, and Muslim women fought their battle in the Mumbai High Court to achieve their right to enter the holy shrine located on the rocks off the Worli sea-shore, on Aug 26, 2016? The PIL, I understand, was filed in November, 2014 but the public hostilities the activists encountered would have been fanned by any other political party, set upon pleasing the Muslim orthodoxy.

Muqtar Abbas Naqvi had said that the Congress has proved its chronic anti-woman mindset by opposing every single move which seeks to liberate Muslim women and shape their destiny in this world of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Even Sharad Pawar of the NCP in Maharastra has, of late, been vocally criticizing the triple talaq bill & mobilizing public opinion against it, with his eyes set on vote bank politics.

In January 2018, the Government has announced the withdrawal of Haj subsidy from this year, following a 2012 Supreme Court order, in keeping with its stated philosophy of ‘empowering’ minorities, and not ‘appeasing’ them. The Hon’ble Minister for Minority Affairs, Shri Muqtar Abbas Naqvi, stated that the Government, which spent around Rs 500 crore in its last Haj subsidy bill would like to see the money being used for educating girls. This would definitely go a long way in the mainstreaming and empowerment of Muslim girls in the country and lead to a considerable mobility among them, both horizontal and vertical.

Along with the middle & the upper middle classes, the steps taken for the empowerment of the lower middle and the lower sections of the Muslim women population also need to be considered. Towards the end, I would like to mention a few schemes aimed at empowering women, and likely to benefit Muslim women immensely because the majority of them belong to these socio-economic categories.

These are:

1) Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana ( Micro Units Development & Reference Agency Limited), active since April 8, 2015. The fact that no collaterals are required to avail the loan, is likely to ease the process of participation of women in the non corporate small business.

2) Nai Roshni Scheme: The scheme for leadership development of minority women, under the Ministry of Minority Affairs. This will also shape the future of minority women in India, empower & instill confidence among them, while significantly contributing to poverty reduction, economic growth & strengthening of civil society. The health concerns of women in our country is a very serious issue and in a community where women suffer from poverty and malnourishment, along with multiple pregnancies lead to severe medical complications including osteoporosis, cervical and ovarian cancers. Coupled with ‘taboos’ regarding the female body, which preclude the possibilities of being touched and examined by the unrelated male, the health issues of Muslim women remain a serious challenge in India.

Like the Ujala Scheme that has immensely benefited the poor women, including Muslim women in our country, the medical cover of up to Rupees five lakh to be given to ten crore families, in the world’s largest government funded health care programme, ‘Modicare’, as it is being called is also likely to shape a healthy future for our women.

(The author is Professor, Department of History and Professor In-Charge of the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Burdwan, West Bengal, India, where she is teaching for the last two decades. She has done her PhD on the identity of Muslim women from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She led the movement for the ban of triple talaq and has been crusading for the equal rights of Muslim women. She is a regular columnist in several Bangla newspapers and appears regularly on television as a commentator on contemporary issues)