“My mother was a simple woman but circumstances made her tough. She was so angry with my father that she warned him, ‘Vakil saab, if I go to court, you will never be able to wear your black coat again’. He lost the case and never wore his coat again,’’ says Siddiqua Ahmed about her mother Shah Bano, who, as a 62-year-old, famously dragged her advocate husband Mohammed Ahmed Khan to court for maintenance, setting off a political battle over Muslim personal law.
Shah Bano won in 1985, with the Supreme Court ruling that she was entitled to maintenance like any other Indian woman. The Congress government headed by Rajiv Gandhi then enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, to set aside the Shah Bano verdict. Shah Bano eventually died in 1992, though her case continues to be a milestone.
It was the second marriage of Shah Bano’s husband Mohammed Ahmed Khan, to a cousin of hers, that tested the couple’s already strained relationship. For years, however, the two women lived together in the same house. Khan later asked Shah Bano to move out to a separate house he owned, a shanty in an adjacent lane, with her three grown-up sons, before divorcing her. Both Khan and his second wife are no more. Khan, who had a law degree from Bahrain and who practised in the Supreme Court and in the High Court, died four years ago when he was in his eighties.
Siddiqua, 67, lives in Khajrana, a Muslim-dominated locality in Indore, only a few houses away from where she grew up with her four siblings and seven half-siblings. She lives with her husband Shafiaq Ahmed, a lawyer by training and an Income Tax consultant, two sons and their families.
Siddiqua says she and her younger sister Fatima were already married when their parents started living separately. Despite what happened to her mother, she adds, she hoped to someday make up with her father. But after the court case, he stopped talking to them.
“We once met at a funeral but did not speak. He was a good man but was under the influence of my stepmother. She would mistreat my mother and brothers,’’ says Siddiqua.
According to her, her father Ahmed stopped practising law after losing the case because he took it as an insult.
Siddiqua’s eldest brother Hameed Khan is no more while the youngest bother, Jameel, who, she says, accompanied their mother to meet Rajiv Gandhi in Delhi, has been unemployed ever since he lost his job with a cooperative bank. Siddiqua says she and her siblings are not on talking terms with her half-siblings.
Siddiqua recalls how, after the court victory, protesters would menacingly walk past her mother’s house . “People even offered us money to toe their line. But she stuck to her stand,’’ she says.