Triple talaq: Supreme Court needs a Muslim woman on the bench
Case such as triple talaq require a complex mesh of gender and religious identities, associated fears and vulnerabilities that are best understood and articulated by women who come from similar locations in lifeopinion Updated: Jun 12, 2017 16:22 IST
A Sikh man, a Christian man, a Muslim man, a Hindu man and a Parsi man. What’s missing from this mix?
These are the judges who have begun hearing a string of petitions challenging triple talaq in the Supreme Court – a first for a court that is breaking from the tradition of two-month summer vacations.
But a case that is going to impact the fates of millions of women across India and fundamentally alter gender relations doesn’t have a woman judge. More importantly, it doesn’t have a single Muslim woman on the bench.
This isn’t a one-off phenomenon but keeps with the tradition of relatively few women judges across high courts and the Supreme Court, kept away from the halls of higher judiciary with what eminent women lawyers describe as a mix of sexual harassment, intimidation, glass ceiling and old-style misogyny.
In the sanctioned strength of 31 judges of the Supreme Court, there is only one woman. The situation is just as dire across high courts. In December, the law ministry released figures that showed that about 10% of the 650-odd judges working in high courts were women. Eight of the 24 high courts had an all-male bench.
This isn’t without precedence. The first woman judge was elevated to the Supreme Court 39 years after it was first set up. Only six of the 229 judges who have served on India’s highest court till 2015 were women. Among them, just one -- the first one -- was a Muslim woman.
Why does this happen? Statistics show that nearly half of all enrolments in law schools are women students, so the slip lies in the road between the classroom to the courtroom.
Senior women lawyers such as Indira Jaising have written at length how they’ve seen bright women lawyers and judges treated as sex objects and subjected to incessant sexual harassment, making impossible their entry into what is essentially a boys club.
What would the presence of more women, and women of diverse backgrounds of caste, region and religion, on judicial benches do? Many commentators say it would avoid judgements such as the Bhanwari Devi case – where the SC dismissed rape charges by saying that upper caste suspects would never touch lower-caste women – or in the infamous Mathura case, where the victim was said to be habituated to sexual intercourse because of her caste or background.
More importantly, a case such as triple talaq requires a complex mesh of gender and religious identities, associated fears and vulnerabilities that are best understood and articulated by women who come from similar locations in life.
Muslim women are in the unenviable position of having the honour of communities imposed on their bodies, while fighting the Hindu right-wing who are interested in saving some of them from triple talaq but not Zakia Jaffri or Bilkis Bano from riot violence.
These women have pioneered the struggle to re-interpret the Quran from times, as historian Margot Badran has shown, before modern conceptions of rights and feminism came into vogue. Organisations such as the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan have successfully argued why a gendered view of religion is important, while rejecting the stereotyping of Muslim communities as illiterate, backward and misogynistic.
They have led the fight against the practice, while simultaneously distinguishing their struggles from the Left and the Right, Hindu right-wing and Muslim hardliners. They have braved stigma at home and shame outside, fended off religious rhetoric and canonical dogma that has attempted to fence them into patriarchy. After centuries, their struggle is about to bear fruit. It is a shame that one of them isn’t going to shape their fate.