The appointment of two Jaipur women as qazis is a small but significant step towards countering the damaging patriarchy that has skewed the interpretation of Sharia in family matters towards men.
As expected, Jahan Ara and Afroz Begum have started facing opposition from within the community. Among the first ones to express resentment is Rajasthan’s chief qazi Khalid Usmani, who has been quoted as saying that as per the Quran a woman can never be a man’s hakim (ruler/judge) and hence, a woman can never be a qazi. He further says that in Islamic history, there is no evidence whatsoever to say that a woman can be a qazi.
Mr Usmani is factually incorrect. Nowhere does the Quran use the word ‘hakim’ in the context of the relationship between men and women. It sees men as ‘qawaam’ (managers) and that too, regarding family affairs and household chores and not necessarily as experts in Islamic jurisprudence.
The likes of Mr Usmani also ought to know that a qazi’s job does not involve judging a man or woman. A qazi is a religious judge working under the guidance of the Sharia or Islamic jurisprudence with a primary duty of solemnizing marriages. By becoming a qazi, a woman does not begin judging or ruling men. At the core of the profession is attaining the knowledge of the fundamentals of Islamic law and giving advice that protects the rights of both partners. It does not matter whether the person giving this judgment is male or female.
Mr Usmani and others opposing the move may be right in saying that there is no evidence in the scriptures of a woman becoming a qazi. At the same time, there is no evidence suggesting women should refrain from becoming experts on Islamic jurisprudence.
On the contrary, Fatwas (edicts) issued by Prophet Muhammad’s wife Hazrat Ayesha can be compiled into many volumes. Many renowned male scholars of that time used to seek her opinion in crucial matters. Other women of that era who were renowned experts in Islamic jurisprudence included Umme Salma, Safia, Hafsa, Umme-Habiba and Juwaria, among others. Stories about the lives of the earliest Muslims tell of women teaching men, playing a role in correcting social conflicts, running businesses and even participating in wars.
In fact, given the hidebound and patriarchal way the male clergy has been interpreting various verses of the Holy Quran and Hadith, particularly issues related to divorce and inheritance, it was a matter of time that the idea of women qazis became a reality.
The disservice done by male qazis to the cause of Personal Laws became evident when the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), an organisation working for the rights of Muslim women, surveyed around 4,000 women to gauge their views on the status of the implementation of Personal Laws and the need for reforms. It documented numerous cases in which qazis did not advise the couple on the amount of meher, or money presented to the woman entering into marriage for her financial safety; there was no due diligence to find out if witnesses on behalf of the groom were reliable; and in more than 100 cases, qazis were found to have prematurely validated triple talaqs without waiting for the stipulated three-month period.
Above 80% of respondents said that qazis should be held accountable as they authenticated decisions which reflected a patriarchal attitude and did not take into consideration women’s rights related to maintenance and inheritance as enshrined in Sharia and the Indian constitution.
It is a welcome study which puts into perspective why we need more women qazis, especially in towns and cities with low literacy levels where Sharia is often interpreted to suit men.
Those seeing women qazis as a problematic initiative are attributing their own mindsets to religion. As increasing number for women qazis graduate from Darul Uloom-i-Niswa, a body formed by the BMMA, they will recognize women’s rights in crucial decisions; this can simply not happen as long as Sharia remains a male preserve.