As twilight casts soft shadows across the sparsely furnished living room of Arshiya Ismail’s tiny rented flat in New Delhi’s Dwarka area, the 46-year-old sits near the balcony looking through a sheaf of court papers that have come to define her life in the past few years.
A school teacher with a post-graduate degree in English and an MBA, Ismail was allegedly divorced in 2011 by her husband, a wing commander in the Indian Air Force, by uttering the ‘triple talaq’, an age-old custom that allows a Muslim man to leave his wife simply by saying the Urdu word thrice.
“In courts and at offices of civil rights activists, young Muslim girls in burqa ask me how an educated woman like me became a victim of this unjust practice,” says Arshiya, articulating the commonly-held belief that triple talaq is prevalent only among the less educated, orthodox and economically backward sections of the community.
The Supreme Court on June 29 decided to examine if Islamic laws governing marriage and inheritance violated the fundamental rights of women and take a call on how far it can intervene to modify the existing laws.
The debate around triple talaq had received a shot in the arm earlier this year when a victim, Shayara Bano of Uttarakhand, filed a petition in the apex court seeking a ban on the practice. She had also challenged the practices of polygamy and nikah halala, which mandates that a woman has to marry another man and consummate it if she and her divorced husband wish to get back together.
“Shayara Bano in her petition said the inhuman practice of triple talaq affected her fundamental rights, besides violating her dignity as a woman…,” says Balaji Srinivasan, advocate on record for Bano and Gulshan Parveen, another petitioner.
“Shayara Bano’s challenge of the practice is the first instance of an individual from the community seeking legal recourse against the practice,” he adds.
A former Tamil Nadu legislator, Bader Sayeed, has also asked the top court to bar clerics from validating triple talaq.
India has separate sets of personal laws for each religion governing marriage, divorce, succession, adoption and maintenance. While Hindu law overhaul began in the 1950s and continues, activists have long argued that Muslim personal law, which has remained mostly unchanged since 1937, is tilted against women.
In the famous Shah Bano case in 1986, the Supreme Court had decided in favour of granting alimony to a Muslim woman after she was divorced. However,
the Centre later enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, that virtually nullified the court directive.
“There is a nexus between the male-dominated Muslim clergy and elected representatives which allow Muslim men to interpret the laws according to their convenience. The legal discrimination of Muslim women has to end,” says Zakia Soman, one of the co-founders of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, which has been pushing for reforms in Muslim personal laws.
She believes that the system of triple talaq, as is being practiced today, is not sanctioned by the Quran. “There is no mention of triple talaq in the Quran. The decision of talaq can be taken by both husband and wife, but there has to be an attempt at reconciliation, followed by mediation by friends and family. It is a procedure that takes place over a period of time. Talaq has to be just and fair,” she insists.
However, in recent years, talaqs are often instantaneous and being communicated through text messages and over WhatsApp with women often left clueless of their husbands’ intention of divorce till the last moment.
Instances of triple talaq haven’t gone up, feels Soman, “but women today are more aware of their rights and are speaking up against it,” she says.
Several women spoke of domestic violence, rape, mental torture, dowry demands or just a desire for remarriage in men culminating into talaq. In most cases, the women are left without any maintenance or means to support themselves or their children.
Deserted 21-year-old says she doesn’t accept divorce
Nagma was 17 when her parents married her off in 2012. On a visit to her mother’s house a few months later, she was allegedly raped by an engineering student who managed to develop relations with her. The boy, Asif, then showed their intimate photos to Nagma’s husband, who divorced her.
On Nagma’s request, Asif married her and went on to splurge the `1 lakh she got as meher. Next, he managed to bring all of Nagma’s belongings from her ex-husband’s home, and then left her at a hotel where they stayed for a fortnight.
A police complaint was filed, following which Asif’s family pressured Nagma and her mother Waseem to withdraw the case. They refused. When Nagma attempted suicide, Asif took her back, only to desert her a few days later — on December 7, 2014. He hasn’t returned since.
Last year, Nagma and Waseem visited Asif’s home in Makrana. They were allegedly assaulted. The duo then sought the help of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan following which an FIR was filed.
However, Asif’s family told the police he had already given talaq to Nagma, who never got any divorce notice. “I don’t accept this,” says Nagma, 21.
Different stories but similar fate
Young Shaista was harassed for more than two years by her in-laws and husband before she was thrown out of the house along with her two sons. Her modest financial and educational background — unlike that of her husband’s family — had led her to suffer it all quietly.
The Bhopal woman sought refuge in her maternal home where she got a letter that carried the triple talaq. Shaista sought to mend things, but to no avail. Her husband owns a shop of religious books in the Old City area. “Shaista is now looking for a job to support her family and sons,” says Safia Akhtar, state convener of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan.
Sadaf Mehmood is a similar victim, though she is well-educated and married in an affluent family — also in Bhopal. “In December 2013, my husband dropped me at my home and never came back. He just sent the talaq papers through the Mufti.”
Helping others save their marriages
Sarammal’s husband divorced her in 2012 after two decades of marriage. She was 40 then. The notice from Abdul Razak came as a letter. “My husband and his family harassed me for dowry — right after I got married in 1991,” she recalls. Razak left her in 2010 but approached her again after two years. “He agreed to take me if I could bring in the dowry he demanded.”
As her family did not have the means, Sarammal continued to live with her parents in Dindigul. Then in 2012, she got a talaq letter. Sarammal tried to reach the local Muslim clergy, who expressed helplessness in the issue. Her persistent pleas to Razak’s parents fell on deaf ears.
Sarammal eventually came to know that Razak had married a second time. Today, she tries to counsel fellow Muslim women facing marital problems and tries her best to save their marriages.
(With inputs from Salik Ahmed, Khusboo Joshi and KV Lakshmana)