Muslim divorce ruling a win for women and for India

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Muslim women in India have welcomed Tuesday's historic Supreme Court judgment on the practice of triple talaq. Photo: Reuters

The Indian Supreme Court’s 3:2 verdict on Tuesday abolishing instant ‘triple talaq’ – the practice of nullifying a marriage by uttering “talaq” (divorce) three times – is a huge victory for millions of Muslim women, and for India’s judiciary and constitution.

While the five judges differed on various legal points, in the end they found the practice of instant triple talaq unconstitutional, arbitrary, and un-Islamic. Chief Justice JS Khehar pointed out that many Islamic states have already abolished instant talaq.

The federal government was directed to legislate against triple talaq in six months and is already in the process of sending an advisory to states to ensure compliance. There may not be any need for new legislation as legal experts believe existing domestic violence laws are likely to be sufficient to deal with cases of instant talaq.

The real winners on Tuesday were the six petitioners – Shayara Bano, Ishrat Jahan, Gulshan Parween, Aafreen Rehman, Atiya Sabri and the group Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. They stood against Muslim clerics and conservative groups in their community and are now happy that their children won’t have to face the ordeal they went through.

Members of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board now fear the federal government may be a step closer to implementing a uniform civil code (UCC), which they say will restrict their cultural and religious rights as guaranteed under the Constitution

The court ruling saw a rare convergence of views, with voices across party lines welcoming it as historic. That reflected genuine and widespread concern for the plight of many Muslim women who don’t know when their husbands will utter “talaq, talaq, talaq” before throwing them out of their homes. There have been cases of women being divorced instantly via Skype, text message, speed-post, ads in the classified section of newspapers, and over the phone.

Members of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) remained guarded in their response to the court ruling, saying they would react only after their working committee meeting in Bhopal on September 10. Over the years, the AIMPLB has vehemently opposed any move to interfere with Muslim customs.

They now fear the federal government may be a step closer to implementing a uniform civil code (UCC), which they say will restrict their cultural and religious rights as guaranteed under the Constitution.

Political impact

The triple talaq ruling comes just over two months ahead of assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power nationally, may not be able to win landslides in these states – as it did in Uttar Pradesh, in March – it may get more votes from Muslim women than previously.

The BJP has always pushed for a ban on triple talaq – and implementation of a UCC. In his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Red Fort in Delhi this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the women fighting ‘triple talaq’ and said the nation would stand by them.

Praising Modi, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad drew a distinction between the current government and that of Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s. Prasad was alluding to the Shah Bano case of 1985 when, under pressure from Muslim clerics and religious groups, Gandhi reversed  a Supreme Court ruling that granted maintenance to Shah Bano, a Muslim woman divorced by her husband in 1978.

Muslim women – from Shah Bano to Shayara Bano – have suffered enough. They now hope the triple talaq ruling is the start of a series of reforms that will change their lives for the better. The federal government may well call an all-party meeting to discuss plans for a UCC after getting a report from the Law Commission.

Meanwhile, media reports suggest the AIMPLB has threatened parties that they may lose Muslim votes if they support such moves.

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