Every time Nishat Hussain gets into a fight with religious leaders about women’s rights under Islam, she hits the same wall. They say the rules governing women are sanctioned by scripture and therefore cannot be altered. She says they are sanctioned by custom and most certainly can be.
Hussain finds this divide most frustrating when she is defending divorced women who come to her office near the overcrowded ironmonger’s bazaar in Jaipur. These women have experienced triple talaq, under which a Muslim man can repeat the word “talaq” three times and his wife stands divorced. No questions, no reasons. All objections overruled.
On an overcast but muggy day, with the endless honking and hum of the pink city’s insanely congested roads in the background, Rani Khan, 25, sits in Hussain’s office with her daughter, Zeinab, four, on her lap.
For years, she claims, her unemployed husband demanded that she get money from her parents to finance his drinking. “He used to threaten to kill Zeinab if I refused,” claimed Khan.
“Then one day, he shouted talaq three times and forced me out of the house.” She now lives with her father, who is paralysed, her mother, six sisters and Zeinab, making a living from fabric painting.
When desperate women like Khan rush to local clerics for justice, they are told that instant divorce is permitted under Islamic law. Their next port of call is the office of the Muslim women’s rights group the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan(Indian Muslim women’s welfare movement or BMMA). Hussain heads the Jaipur office and is well known locally for her work with poor, vulnerable women and efforts to reform aspects of Islam.
Since it was set up in 2007, the BMMA has been campaigning for a ban on triple talaq, calling it a travesty of divorce as envisaged in the Qur’an, where the word has to be pronounced on three separate occasions spread over three months and must be accompanied by efforts at reconciliation.
Try telling that to men like Nooran Nisa’s husband, who divorced her four months after their marriage. “All Muslim women are haunted by this word,” Nisa said. “During fights, I used to argue back but if it got too heated, I stopped because I was frightened my husband might say talaq.”
Nisa, 35, was never to hear those words, but after kicking her out of the house, her husband sent her a letter with talaq written in it three times, she claims.
When her husband threw Jahan Ara, 40, out of the house a year ago, after 15 years of marriage, he kept their three children. He has not yet divorced her. “I’ve inherited some property so that’s why he hasn’t divorced me. He’s got his eyes on it,” she claimed at the BMMA offices.
In India, which has a Muslim minority, Muslim men have sent triple talaq by text, email, Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp. The reasons vary from not liking the wife’s dyed hair to her cooking.
At a civil court, Nisa was told by a judge that the instant divorce was valid as it was permitted to Muslim men under Muslim personal law, or the sharia.
Hussain and her colleagues across India have failed to persuade their community to ban triple talaq. But recently they received a boost: a government committee set up in 2013 to look into women’s status has recommended that the government should outlaw it.
In its report (pdf), released last month, it says the custom “makes wives extremely vulnerable and insecure regarding their marital status”.
The recommendation has been sent to the ministry of women and child development, which will hold consultations with civic and religious groups before a final decision is taken.
Hussain says that, had her husband been alive, he would have supported the ban. “He was a feminist. He totally supported my efforts to protect Muslim women against abuse,” she said.
Muslim scholars such as Professor Tahir Mahmood, an internationally recognised expert on sharia law, will also support a ban. He recently told Scroll, an Indian news website,that “ignorance, obstinacy, blind belief in religion and morbid religiosity are undoubtedly the factors” responsible for triple talaq being allowed in India.
“Why should India be sticking to this seventh-century law?” he said.
The reason is because India does not have a uniform civil code that applies to all Indians. Instead, each religious community is allowed to have its own laws governing marriage and divorce and consequently Muslims are allowed to follow sharia.
A government ban on triple talaq will be opposed by clerics and conservative organisations, such as the powerful All India Muslim Personal Law Board. The board, aware of how women’s lives are destroyed by triple talaq, is trying to impose restrictions on its use by suggesting that efforts at reconciliation must be mandatory. It is also toying with the idea of a heavy fine for men who indulge in it.
But spokesman Mohammed Abdul Rahim Qureshi said the board could not support a government ban. “For one, we don’t want the government to interfere in matters of Muslim personal law and for another, triple talaq is permitted under the hadith [the prophet Muhammad’s sayings],” he said.
That kind of remark makes Hussain, an otherwise calm, soft-spoken woman, furious. “For the women I see in my office – hardworking women, good wives and good mothers – this is just plain and simple cruelty.”