The issue of minority rights and multiculturalism is high on the political agenda of many states today, as people from various minorities form a substantial percentage of their population. Multiculturalism promises a deeper understanding of the demands by marginalised communities, thereby ensuring equality and justice for them. Feminists, too, have had an affinity to politics of difference and empathise with multiculturalists. They have accordingly made claims for women, another marginalised 'community'.
India is a multicultural polity, which grants special rights to religious communities. Women have been granted equal rights here. However, the stress on granting rights opens up the possibility of a conservative interpretation of identity politics. This is problematic to feminists, as while multiculturalists pay special consideration to inequalities among groups, they fail to address inequalities within these groups. Granting cultural rights to feminists could lead to the subordination of women within the group.
In India, Muslims have been given the right to follow their own personal law, the Muslim Personal Law (MPL). A false campaign was launched by the orthodox section within the community which stated that preserving Muslim culture was as good as preserving the MPL. The MPL was, thus, in need of protection from the majority culture. Because of this politics of cultural preservation, Muslim law has remained unchanged since Independence. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has been one of the most regressive apex bodies representing Indian Muslims. As a result, new bodies representing different sections of Muslims have come up.
Of late, there has been a debate over the registration of marriages in the Muslim community. Riled by the decision to make the registration of marriages mandatory, the AIMPLB is set for a showdown with the Centre. It feels that this has been the Centre's "insidious designs to infringe upon the Shariat rules". The board states that it had made its reservations on the issue clear three years ago when the proposal was first floated. It claims that citing the registration as a primary condition, the violation of which could nullify a marriage, would be deemed a violation of the MPL. The board wants the government to make registration voluntary and not link it with the legal acceptance of nikah.
The issue has now turned into a gender war. According to the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board president Shaista Ambar, the nikahnama, introduced by the board three years ago, categorically makes registration of nikah a pre-condition. This provision guarantees security of marital rights to Muslim women.
However, the AIMPLB has stated its objection in court, saying that it "will bring unwanted hindrances in the solemnisation of nikahs." Contrary to what the AIMPLB feels, this simple act can prevent the abuse of the institution of marriage and keep social injustice in check. It will do a power of good to women who are left by their husbands and have no means of proving their marital status. It can check child marriages, bigamy and polygamy, enable women to seek maintenance and custody of their children and widows to stake a claim on family inheritance. Marriage registration, simply by serving as a document of proof, will empower Indian women, not just Hindu women, to exercise their rights.
Unfortunately, a bill that was presented in Parliament in 2006 to introduce compulsory registration of marriages for all communities got diluted as soon as the Centre got a whiff of objections on the ground that it will interfere with MPL.
Therefore, in a multicultural polity like ours, new institutions and mechanisms are essential to bring about long-term changes within communities. These could be either borrowed from other Muslim countries, interpreted from the Koran or formulated according to our needs. Thus, multiculturalism is a challenge that must be dealt with on an urgent basis.
Tamanna Khosla works with Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace
The views expressed by the author are personal