Not about law, but gender justice: Struggle against Sharia courts in Tamil Nadu
The Madras high court on Monday banned all unauthorised courts in mosques across Tamil Nadu, in response to a petition filed by an NRI.india Updated: Dec 23, 2016 18:27 IST
Sharia courts have once again come under the scanner after the Madras high court this week banned all unauthorised courts in mosques across Tamil Nadu, in response to a petition filed by a non-resident Indian (NRI).
In response to the PIL, which was filed after Abdul Rahman claimed that the Sharia council at Chennai’s Makkah Masjid had passed an order divorcing him from his wife, the HC observed that all centres of worship could only be used for religious practices and not as quasi-legal bodies.
It is difficult to ascertain just how many Sharia councils are operating in Tamil Nadu. While every mosque is expected to maintain one, there are no figures of how many actually do and how many pass orders and judgements.
What is known is that practitioners of Islam frequently go to these courts for advice and counsel, usually in matters of matrimonial disputes or property issues.
The Makkah Masjid, located on bustling Anna Salai, denies all allegations of wrongdoing.
“We are just a counselling centre. When members of our community run into marriage problems or property disputes they come here for advice. We are definitely not a kangaroo court,” Hazir Mohammed, the caretaker of the mosque, says.
“This is our Shariah council,” Mohammed continues, pointing to a small room.
Bare except for a few chairs and a long desk, the council is comprised of the imam and his deputy, a woman’s rights activist, and even an advocate from the high court.
“Rahman has made this into an issue by taking it to the court because the council advised his wife to divorce him. This is another false accusation and we will plan how best to respond to it,” Mohammed says.
A Sirajudeen, the senior counsel overlooking Rahman’s proceedings, thinks otherwise.
“We have submitted documents along with our petition that indicate the council was acting as a legal body. Dated court summons, evidence of adjudications, written in the language of the law,” he says.
“They operated like a quasi-legal body in matrimonial matter and property disputes,” R Rajaramani, the advocate representing Rahman, adds.
“In the case of my client, the council passed judgement hours after they heard from both him and his wife - which is a violation of the guidelines laid down by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which says there has to be at least a three month gap between hearing and fatwa,” he adds.
For many, Shariah councils are an essential part of not only their faith but their lives as well.
“The council here gave me important advice in an issue I had with some land,” Fariq Hussein, a local trader, says.
But for others, the rulings of the councils are harsh and discriminatory.
When Ilma (name changed) received a letter from a Jamaat five years ago saying that her husband had divorced her, she began a fight for a more equitable outcome. “I did what I thought I should do. I went to a Sharia council for mediation and assistance,” she says.
What she found instead was a general unwillingness to help her, escalating at times to full-blown harassment.
“I wanted justice and a fairer ruling for me and my son. But each council and each Jamaat I went to were not interested in helping. Members of the Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam found me and harassed me constantly, saying that it would be difficult for me to live in Chennai if I continued to pursue this,” she says.
More than the councils, it is the Jamaats who cause the most harm, according to senior advocate Bader Sayeed.
“The Jamaats hear the husband and get him to sign a document of divorce. They then issue the divorce decree whenever they feel like it. It’s almost like they are pronouncing triple talaq themselves,” the veteran campaigner against triple talaq says.
Fatwas issued by Islamic judges have no legal weight, Sayeed says.
“These councils operate like khatta panchayats and kangaroo courts. Their rulings invariably violate the fundamental rights of women, and the state if legally bound to enforce the Constitution,” she adds.
Because the rulings of the Shariah councils mainly focus on divorces and the granting of the controversial triple talaq, Sayeed maintains that opposition to them has little to do with religion and more to do with gender justice.
Five years later, Ilma has managed to get some orders passed by the court to her benefit.
But it’s a small comfort to her. “I feel if I was not a Muslim maybe I would have gotten fairer treatment,” she says.
“This is not about being against Sharia law but against how it is being misused against women,” she adds.
“It’s changing the lives of Muslim women and their children - and not for the better.”