Activists say legislation based on Islamic shariah law is being misused and allows men to instantly walk away from their families.
Only three words were scrawled on the letter from her husband and posted to her parent’s home in central India, but they were enough to shatter Sadaf Mehmood’s life. Using an ancient and controversial Islamic practice, Mehmood’s husband wrote: “talaq, talaq, talaq” or “I divorce you” three times in Arabic, instantly ending his marriage of five years.
“I was completely shocked and shattered. We had differences soon after we wed but it never looked so bad,” the mother-of-three told AFP. Mehmood, who is from Bhopal, is one of a number of Indian Muslim women whose husbands dissolved their marriage using triple talaq. The message delivered by everything from traditional letters to Facebook and Whatsapp.
Banned in many Muslim countries, India, which is officially secular, is one of the few nations that legally permits the practice. “The talaqnama [divorce letter] came without any intimation or warning,” said Mehmood, 31, adding that she now struggles to make ends meet without her husband’s support.
Now another divorcee, Shayara Bano, has asked the Supreme Court to outlaw it, as a backlash against the practice gathers steam. “I understand my marriage is over but something needed to be done so that other Muslim women do not suffer,” Bano told AFP of her petition filed in February, which has encouraged at least one other divorcee to follow suit.
India’s religious minorities, including its 155 million Muslims, are governed by personal laws that are meant to enshrine their religious freedom in Hindu-majority India. But women say the Muslim Personal Law Application Act, which is based on shariah law and permits triple talaq, is being misused, allowing men to instantly walk away from their families.
“Women are generally treated as second class citizens in our society and they are further discriminated against by those misinterpreting religion,” Sadia Akhtar who works for Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a charity helping to empower Muslim women. A survey of Muslim women by the charity last year found an overwhelming majority favored abolition of the practice, deeming it un-Islamic. Some 500 of the 4,000 women surveyed said they had been divorced that way.
In recent weeks some 50,000 Muslims signed a petition organized by the charity as part of a campaign to ban it.
The Quran prescribes a procedure for divorce to be undertaken in 90 days, starting from the first utterance of talaq, followed by two more but with a 30-day gap in between each one. Islamic scholars say this gives couples time to reflect on their marriage and possibly reconcile.
Most Muslim scholars say the instant talaq diverts from the Quran. Although it was given official approval during the rein of Islam’s second caliph Omar in the seventh century, it was discouraged.
Akhtarul Wasey, a professor of Islamic studies, said it was only supposed to be used as a last resort when husbands were “traumatizing their partners” by endlessly pronouncing talaq and then revoking it. “[But] It has lost its essence and become an arbitrary law,” said Wasey from New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University.
Many Muslim majority countries including neighboring Bangladesh have already banned it, while legislation on the same is pending in Pakistan’s Parliament.
But India’s Muslim leaders are reluctant to amend the personal law, fearing an erosion of their religious identity. Some fear Hindu hardliners will use such changes as an excuse to push for the law’s entire abolition.
The issue comes at a time of heightened concern among minorities of rising intolerance by Hindus hardliners, who have become emboldened since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election in 2014. Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is committed to replacing personal laws for all religious minorities with a common civil code, to enhance national unity.
Kamal Faruqui, member of an influential Muslim body, said Muslims have a right to practice their religion according to shariah law and that should be protected at all costs. Faruqui conceded triple talaq was a “problem for Muslims” but changes to the personal law were “unacceptable to us.”
“We discourage Muslims to seek divorce and certainly triple talaq should never be used. Instead couples should go for the honorable exit route mentioned in the Quran,” said Faruqui, from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
Shaista Ali, also from Bhopal, said she appealed to clerics for assistance after her husband suddenly divorced her and she was shunted from the family home, but “they sided with my in-laws.”
Divorcee Mehmood accepts that her marriage is over, but she remains hopeful of change so that other women are spared her ordeal. “We can’t stop talaqs but there should be some consequences so that men think 10 times before uttering talaq, talaq talaq,” she said.