Banning triple talaq – infringing on religious freedom or a step towards empowering women?

18th Oct 2016
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As is usual with issues pertaining to socio-religious practices and rituals, there is a raging debate going on regarding the Centre’s move to ban polygamy and ‘triple talaq’ through an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had stated in a Facebook post that the government is of the view that personal laws should be constitutionally compliant and should confirm with norms of gender equality and the right of women to live with dignity. He has stated that governments in the past have not taken a categorical stand regarding personal laws and this has been a long pending issue that needs resolution.

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Though India has secular laws regarding birth, marriage and death, when it comes to marriages secular laws are primarily followed for inter-caste and inter-religious marriages with the Islamic law permitting the practice of verbal divorce called as triple talaq, as well as polygamy. The current BJP government had the Uniform Civil Code on their election manifesto, but Jaitley clarified that the decision on the constitutional validity of triple talaq will be separate from the Uniform Civil Code. However, this move has caused concern among minority communities since the BJP is seen as a right-wing party with a pro-Hindutva stance.

Both sides of the coin

The clerics on the All India Muslim Personal Law Board have come up with bizarre reasons to continue with triple talaq. The board had stated, “If there develops serious discord between the couple, and the husband does not at all want to live with the wife, the legal compulsions of time-consuming separation proceedings and expenses may deter him from taking the legal course. In such instances, he may resort to illegal and criminal ways of getting rid of her by murdering her.”

But the most interesting point here is that the version of Triple Talaq that is followed in India is not followed in most Muslim countries, including Pakistan. Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla, who was previously the Minority Affairs Minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet, abstained from giving her opinion on the Centre’s stand, but mentioned that, practically, an ‘un-Islamic’ interpretation was being given to the practice of ‘triple talaq’ in India.

She said, “Triple talaq cannot be given in one sitting. It has to be done in three sittings over three months and after following an arbitration process. The way they are interpreting it is not Islamic and is not true. Mostly all Muslim countries, including Pakistan, do not follow this practice.” Heptulla also spoke about how Islam is a religion that protects the rights of women and people are bringing a bad name to the religion due to their own vested interests. Social activist Shabnam Hashmi has been a voice calling out for abolishing triple talaq.

An analysis of the Census data of 2011 reveals that nearly 80 percent of the divorced Muslims in India are women, which means that for every divorced Muslim man, there are four divorced Muslim women. This gender disparity is not just among Muslims but across religious communities, except for Sikhs. Among Hindus, Christians and Buddhists the gender skew is slightly lower but still alarming.

The reason for this disparity is polygamy, but not in the conventional sense of a man being married and living with multiple women at the same time. Polygamy here just means men deserting their wives without a formal divorce and remarrying a second or a third time. These women do not have the financial security in the form of alimony and maintenance, and struggle to bring up their children without legal recourse.

So just banning a practice is not going to be enough. Irrespective of religions and personal laws, all women have to be protected from abandonment and destitution through a strong legal framework that works out the nitty-gritty of women’s rights.

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