Shia women in India finally have substantive marital rights. The All India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB) on Sunday unveiled a new nikahnama (marriage agreement) which gave Shia women the right to seek divorce on many more grounds than they enjoyed earlier. In a radical departure from previous Muslim convention, it also gave women the right to maintainence after divorce until they became self-dependent.
The AISPLB said Shia women could ask for divorce on grounds of mental and physical torture, being cheated by their husbands or barred from studying or taking up a job.
The previous model nikahnama introduced by the All India Muslim Personal Board (AIMPLB), which applies to all Muslims, gives women the right to initiate divorce only if their husbands are cruel or impotent. The AISPLB has gone further, granting more rights to the 1.5 crore Shia women in the country than their Sunni sisters possess.
The Shia nikahnama has been approved by the its seniormost cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah-al-Uzma-al-Sayed Sistani, and accepted by the AISPLB's general body meeting in Mumbai.
It also makes the signing of an agreement at the time of the wedding mandatory. The agreement should have details of the professions of both spouses, their salaries, dependants and earlier marriages, if any. The marriage will not be considered legal unless the agreement is signed.
"The nikahnama is a legally enforceable contract," said Zaheer Abbas Rizvi, general secretary of the AISPLB. "This shows that the Shia community is progressive and ensures equal rights for women." He said the law would empower women and show "there is no narrowness in Islam". There is also a provision for "arbitration" under which a couple must go to a third party for the settlement of marital disputes before approaching the court.
The AISPLB said the nikahnama was valid with immediate effect and no further approval from the AIMPLB would be sought.