India : In the name of women

It is devious and presumptuous of some prominent members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to conclude that when Muslim women speak up against a practice like triple talaq or polygamy, what they are really asking for is a uniform civil code (UCC) that will apply to people of all religions. Leading members of the ruling party are doing precisely this by writing in newspapers and making speeches expressing faux sympathy for Muslim women who suffer the consequences of triple talaq and then arguing that their rights will be protected if India moves to adopt a UCC. The current debate over the practice of triple talaq and polygamy has arisen in the context of the Supreme Court hearing a bunch of petitions for and against abolishing these practices. For the first time, it is not just individual Muslim women whose views are central to the debate but organisations of Muslim women which are forcefully representing their point of view. They have found their voice to question the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) that believes it is the last word on Muslim Personal Law and interpretations of how these practices are represented in the Quran and the sharia. Yet, nowhere in their petitions are these women asking for a UCC. Their demand is clear : codify personal laws, not do away with them.

Such a mobilisation by Muslim women is indeed historic and must be noted. It stands out in contrast to the time when an ­individual woman, Shah Bano, fought a court case to assert her right for maintenance when her husband of 14 years first took another wife, and thereafter divorced her and denied even the minimal amount due to her as maintenance. The 1985 Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case is now seen as a kind of inflection point in Indian politics because a “secular” party like the Congress gave in to the demands of conservative Muslim clergy and passed a law, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 to nullify the Court’s ruling in the case. While the Court found no conflict between provisions of Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure under which any woman can demand maintenance after divorce and provisions in Muslim Personal Law on the same issue, the clergy had argued that the Court should not interfere in matters relating to religious laws. Instead of allowing the Court to have the last word in this matter, the Congress party under Rajiv Gandhi chose to heed conservative elements amongst Muslims, thereby laying the grounds for the subsequent accusations of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar about the politics of “appeasement” of minorities. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is interesting how today, something similar is happening. The arguments of the AIMPLB are the same. But the party in power now is pandering not to a minority but to a majority. It is cynically using the genuine voices of Muslim women to reiterate its position that Muslim laws and traditions are regressive and perpetuate gender inequality and at the same time arguing that the solution is a UCC that will bring about “national integration.” The BJP chooses not to see the obvious contradiction between this so-called “national integration,” whatever that means, and its policies of the last two years that have led to the opposite—national disintegration with deepening communal and caste divisions and the politics of intolerance and violence. When finance minister Arun Jaitley speaks of how religion should not dictate the rights of individuals, he clearly sees no irony in the reality that his own party members, in the name of religion and cow protection, have justified not just denial of the rights of non-Hindus but are also willing to bludgeon and kill them to impose their own set of beliefs. As for gender equality, the status of women within Hindu society is hardly something to be proud of even as these men bemoan the conditions of Muslim women.

By equating the demand for change from within the Muslim community with the desirability or otherwise of a UCC, the BJP is following a deliberate strategy of pushing forward its agenda of homogenising Indian society—or rather Hinduising it. The Uttar Pradesh elections are around the corner. The debate over abolishing triple talaq has handed the BJP with an opportunity to consolidate the Hindu vote by harping on the backwardness of Muslim customs and practices. There is no love here for ­Muslim women, or any women for that matter. It is part of the party’s long-term agenda to push all minorities under one law. This is something that women’s movements in India have long been aware of, particularly after the Shah Bano judgment. Even then it was evident that real change in the Muslim Personal Law would come only if Muslim women themselves demanded it rather than as an imposition of uniformity from above. By pursuing this strategy, the ruling party is ensuring that Muslim women campaigning for a change will lose out in the end. For in the current atmosphere, it seems inevitable that once again, communal politics will trump women’s rights.


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