Triple Talaq: Indian Muslim women often have very little say in the nikah-nama
Towards the end of the Supreme Court’s hearings on triple talaq, Chief Justice of India JS Khehar asked if a woman can exclude the triple talaq clause in the marriage contract. This question set off an important dialogue that was missing from Muslim circles. Many of us had been talking about the nikah-nama being a contract drawn out between consenting adults and thereby by the very nature of a civil contract, it can have clauses inserted that both parties mutually agree to. The clauses can be to spell out the procedure for divorce, child custody, property, mehr, etc.
When I made this point to many elderly women from the community, I was met with resistance as they said, ‘Kaun shaadi karega (who will marry) if the girl’s side is so demanding?’ This statement was a mirror to the reality of our society. The massive social engineering that goes into silencing a woman is fundamental to understanding the crux of this problem. Muslim girls often grow up making fun of a bride when she says ‘Qubool hai’ too loud or too quick. It is preferred that she remains elusive and coy with her verbal agreement to the marriage. And if a bride fails to audibly cry after the nikah, the halls are filled with stories and assumptions. Is she too happy to leave her parents place? Is she over-eager to get into the marital bed? Such loose talk often builds up the picture of a nikah for a young girl. They grow up hearing praises for the bride who ‘cried till she fainted’ and ridicule for the ones who asked for “too much Mehr”. It’s an everyday indoctrination, “you need to tone down or you won’t get married like this” or “don’t ask too many questions.”
Indian Muslim women often experience the worst combination of Indian and Arabian cultures in their daily lives. Only in our subcontinent do Muslim girls and their families have to bend over backwards to please boys. Nowhere else does a woman pay a man to marry her. Dowry is unique to us. Islam instead had Mehr which has been reduced to nothing in India and is often seen as an insult if it is anything substantive. In some extreme cases it can be a mere Rs.101 too. Of course, the ‘gifts’ from the girl’s side continue to be a matter of prestige. In such a scenario, how aggressively will a girl be able to negotiate the marriage contract or the nikah-nama?
The nikah-nama as a document in itself is often not read by the bride. Although custom goes that the qazi reads it out aloud for the bride before asking for her consent, but many a times this ritual is bypassed in the name of ‘purdah’. The document itself might be in Urdu script or a language the bride does not understand and brought to her at the nth hour. Under the weight of heavy bridalwear and bridal behaviour under the watchful eyes of hovering wedding guests, the details of a nikah-nama are often not bothered with.
In an affidavit on Monday, The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) told the Supreme Court that it had decided to issue an advisory through its website, publications and social media platforms asking qazis to advise both the bridegroom and the bride to incorporate a condition in the nikah-nama to exclude resorting to pronouncement of three divorces in one sitting. This does not take cognisance of the fact that brides often have very little say in the matters of the nikah-nama. The fact that clauses can be inserted is a little known fact, even among the educated elite. Finding acceptance for the same in all other classes sounds like a utopian idea divorced from reality.
In a patriarchal society such as ours, girls are not supposed to spell out conditions. No one wants to discuss details of divorce while getting hitched. The ‘proper’ way ahead would be to have a standard nikah-nama that ensures the basic rights of a bride are not curbed. In the absence of a unifying body representing the Muslims in India, only the Supreme Court’s intervention and decision in this matter can ensure the acceptance of the nikah-nama beyond divides of sect, class and education; and become a tool for a woman’s true empowerment. Mere ‘advice’ from an NGO that is not binding on anyone will only be an eyewash and won’t really make much difference on the ground.
Nazia Erum is a TEDx speaker and author of the forthcoming book, ‘Mothering a Muslim’
The views expressed are personal