Many social practices that reflect social inequalities hide behind the cover of religion. Personal laws under British administrators were drawn from diverse sources. It reflected the gender prejudices of its times since the interpreters of “religion” have been mostly men. The process of reforming regressive practices also began during the British rule. Reformers ended practices like Sati and child marriage. Conservative sections in the society opposed these reforms and insisted that these be preserved in the name of “defence” of religion.
Many campaigns for social reform are continuing among both Hindu and Muslim communities. Some of the campaigns to let women enter temples where they were not allowed — like Shani Shingnapur — have been effective. Similarly, Muslim women are demanding entry to Haji Ali Dargah, where they are not allowed since the past five years. It is against this background that the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) launched a campaign against triple talaq. A survey done by BMMA shows that around 92 per cent Muslim women are opposed to this abominable practice.
The BMMA has already collected the signatures of 50,000 Muslim women to oppose the triple talaq and also to oppose talaq halala. In triple talaq, a man can pronounce talaq three times and throw the wife out of the house. In talaq halala, if the husband decides to take her back, she has to get married to someone else, consummate the marriage, and then divorce the new husband before she can return to the earlier husband. Many maulanas offer this service of being “temporary husbands”.
As per the BMMA, both these practices are un-Islamic. It points out that such practices are not mentioned in the Quran. A memorandum submitted to National Commission for Women mentions that, “The instant method of divorce has no mention in the Quran. In fact, the Quranic method requires a 90-day process of dialogue, reconciliation and mediation before divorce takes place.” Many Islamic scholars endorse the BMMA’s stand. However, the Muslim personal law board and Jamaat-e-Isalmi do not agree with the BMMA. The Jamaat is planning a campaign to oppose the efforts of Muslim women for reforming personal laws. There are many progressive groups, prominent activists and writers from the community, who have declared solidarity with the agitating women. However, these people are being dubbed by conservatives as supporters of Uniform Civil Code (UCC), a pet theme of the BJP and the RSS.
The fact is triple talaq is banned in over 21 Muslim majority countries including Pakistan. The rights of religious minorities for culture, right to life and affirmative action need to be supported. At the same time, the process of reform within the community must also be upheld and supported on moral, social and legal grounds.
The demand for personal law reforms by Muslim women and the BJP-RSS call for UCC are not comparable. The RSS is inherently patriarchal and its pro-UCC stance is merely to intimidate the religious minorities. The same RSS had opposed the Hindu Code Bill (HCB) drafted by Babasaheb Ambedkar. The RSS was against the reforms proposed in the HCB. The opposition from conservatives in the Hindu community, including many elements in the Congress, forced the Nehru government to dilute Ambedkar’s draft of the HCB.
RSS leader M.S. Golwalkar was a strong opponent of UCC. Later, in the wake of Shah Bano judgment, when dominant Muslim groups opposed the court ruling in the name of Muslim personal law, the RSS began to demand UCC. In any case, UCC was initially a demand of the women’s movement.
The basic point which emerged from the making of the HCB was that most personal laws reflect the hierarchical notions of society and thereby accord secondary status to women. So what we need are gender just personal laws. The gender just code in turn has to be the same for all the communities and, hence, it will be uniform. Gender justice has to be the basis of uniformity; blind uniformity may turn out to be most unjust for women.
Can non-Muslims opine on the issue of Muslim personal laws? This writer wants the rights of minorities to be respected across nations. This includes the rights of women, who are a minority in power structures. Movements like the BMMA seeks to reform personal laws by exploring the space available within the Quran. Needless to say, there are multiple interpretations of the Quran. The BMMA, which strives to privillege the humane and just aspects of the teachings of a religion, needs to be supported.
The personal law question needs to be understood in the context of patriarchy. All reform movements that challenge patriarchy call for our support. Gender equality has to be prioritised over conservative interpretations of religious scholars. We do need to say a big no to triple talaq and polygamy.