The most insidious truth in the picture headlining the story had escaped me, at least for a moment. Countless centuries of the male privilege in my genes must have been responsible for my momentary inability to recognise the picture for what it was. But then the realisation dawned, like lightning from the heavens above striking deep into my brain, my whole being. It was what has been happening from time immemorial: Men, particularly old men, sitting in judgement on what rights women should or mostly rather shouldn’t have; it had been happening for eons until women rose up in different parts of the world–the likes of Jhansi, Sarojini Naidu and Aruna Asif Ali in India and the suffragettes in the west, just to name some of the countless milestones; then the bra burning and the unshackling of women the world over gathered unstoppable momentum.
Those men in the picture belonged to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB); the privileged of the male privilege, their privilege sanctioned and condoned by religion. They were and are not much different from the Roman Catholics Popes who have so far barred women from being ordained priests, the Hindu priests who have until recently barred women from entering some temples or the Imams who would disallow women in some mosques.
On the day the picture was taken, the Old Men of the AIMPLB were pontificating on the ‘virtues’ of Triple Talaq. That day they declared how the Triple Talaq wasn’t such a bad thing. Without being bogged down in the legal or other niceties of Triple Talaq, it was and remains a monumental obstruction in the way of equality for women. It is as iniquitous now as it was when the Congress regime under Rajiv Gandhi showed utter lack of intestinal fortitude in not enshrining the Shah Bano judgement of the Supreme Court of India into law to begin to give a significant section of Indian women rights they had long demanded and deserved. Rajiv’s government legislatively diluted the effect of the Court’s judgement. But where the politician had failed the people, the Court once again came to the women’s rescue. In subsequent cases it restored the rights first enunciated in Shah Bano.
The Old Men in the picture argued that any judicial intervention in the issue of Triple Talaq is “an infringement of the religious rights” of the Muslim community–a facile argument deeming a mere judicial interpretation of the matters under the Constitution of India an infringement. Democracy is nothing if not constitutional. In democracies the elected representatives make the laws and the courts interpret them. The last time I checked India was not a theocracy–at least not yet, although I am afraid one could be forgiven for thinking it is on its way to becoming one–with governments’ and political parties’ platforms talking about building Mandirs per se or Mandirs in places where currently there currently are none; with cow vigilantes’ lawlessness and terror reigning in several parts of India including New Delhi, the seat of India’s government, and the men of the AIMPLB crying foul over judicial intervention on Triple Talaq which they deem a Muslim religious right.
As for the Men’s “infringement of religious rights” argument, it is clear that marriage is a social and cultural construct. Triple Talaq is no more a Muslim religious principle than sati was a Hindu religious principle. They were both social and cultural constructs that over time became subsumed by faith. Sati was indigenous to India and evil. The Triple Talaq traveled with the Muslim travelers, kings and their armies. Originally from Arabia, Triple Talaq became Indian as did the Muslims. It was an Arabian social and cultural practice that was subsumed by Islam. The caste or Sati, sanctioned or not by Hinduism, can’t ever be legitimately claimed as religious principles or allowed religious sanctity. Similarly, whether it happens in three different sittings or one, the Triple Talaq, sanctioned by Islam or not, can’t ever be legitimately elevated into a religious principle obstructing the social and cultural equality of Muslim women. To guarantee the right to freely practice any citizens’ religion is the only obligation a government has vis a vis religion. The government can’t and mustn’t protect gender inequality–be it in the name of religion or otherwise; Period.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board needs to drag itself into the 21st Century. If not, the mounting yearning for real equality among the Muslim women would drag it into the still relatively young century, despite the kicking and screaming of the Old Men of AIMPLB or others.