India: The Board of no shame

South Asia Citizen's Wire
It is time to take the matter to the state and argue for some form of state protection which would be equally applicable to all women in vulnerable positions, irrespective of religious affiliations.
The All India Muslim Personal law Board's 'chintan baithak' at Bhopal has failed to ban the reprehensible Muslim tradition of 'triple talaq' (divorce given in one sitting) as contrary to Islamic principles.
Demanded by various womenís organization, the abrogation of triple talaq was to form part of the 'model nikahnama' prepared by the AIMPLB. The 'Bhopal Declaration', as it has come to be known, falls woefully short of such demands.

In trying to attenuate the affects of the Muslim demand for abrogation of 'triple talaq', the Board mildly condemns it as not desirable. Now there is a near universal consensus that such a form of divorce is indeed not desirable. Some commentators have even termed the clause as un-Islamic and therefore it should have no place within Islamic sharia. What was expected of the Board was to take the criticism of the various sections of the Muslims and promulgate a model which would be forward looking.

In its present shape the adopted 'model' nikahnama is actually out of tune of the wishes of large number of Indian Muslims.

It would be naive to believe that the members of the Board are blissfully unaware of the changes occurring within the Indian Muslim society. However, such changes are mostly confined to the aware and largely urban metropolitan Muslims which are perhaps not the target audience of the Board. Constituting, as it does, largely of religious scholars trained in traditional seminaries, the custodians of the Board respond largely to those Muslims who are primarily living in rural areas or the small qasbas. Changes in this sector are quite slow and halting, old stereotypes about women still hold sway and the ulama are still considered the custodians of Islam.

It is against this backdrop that the Board's recent position on triple talaq should be understood. Through the model nikahnama, they are appealing to these sections of primarily non-urban semi literate male Muslims, who are their clientele. Social change in the urban sector has, in a sense, led to a gradual contestation of the authority of the ulama, in the sense that their understanding of Islam is no longer considered the only valid one. Muslims in urban areas are therefore much better placed through access to religious books and other means to not only challenge the authority of the ulama but also to have their version of personal Islam.

So much so that the demand for the abrogation of the 'triple talaq' has largely been the work of Muslims living in urban areas. In arguing against a ban on triple talaq, the Board in this sense emerges as a fortress of traditionalism as opposed to the reformist demands of the sections of Indian Muslims. Clearly then, putting pressure on the Board to reform is of no help, since in this case it has given an unambiguous judgment that, if anything, is anti-reform.

However, it cannot be denied, that the Board still has much moral capital, which it can use to bring about reform in key sectors like the position of women among Indian Muslims. The ulama are perhaps the most well networked class of people with immense capital to mobilize and mould public opinion. The Shah Bano agitation serves as an obvious example. If they want they can, through the widespread network of mosques and madrasas percolate their message and create a favorable opinion against the practice of 'triple talaq' and other such evils.

Yet the model nikahnama clearly tells us that they are not interested in doing so. Rather, it is much more interested in reinstating the authority of traditional structures of power based on sex and age.

An obvious example of the way in which this is sought to be done can be seen in the clause of the model nakahnama which clearly stipulates that without the presence of 'guardians', the nikah will not be valid. Now Islam gives freedom to adult Muslims to choose their own spouses. This is valid both for adult men as well as women. This argument has come in handy to many Muslims who married out of their volition, because they liked someone or for some other reason.

This is a clause which has made them marry the partner of their own choice without feeling guilty about losing their religion or the validity of their marriage. If current trends are any marker, then such marriages are only going to increase in the future. The clause of having a guardian to validate the marriage will be used with impunity against those young Muslims who want to marry out of personal choice rather than being dictated by the norms of the family and caste. In seeking to arrest such changes therefore the Board has shown, once again, its reactionary ideology and its desire to control the Muslims.

It is increasingly becoming clear that appeals to such bodies of power as the Board are bound to be defeated time and again. The womenís groups demanding the Board to see the plight of Muslim women would do much better to highlight this plight in front of the state and argue for some form of state protection which would be equally applicable to all women in vulnerable positions, irrespective of religious affiliations.

Arshad Alam is International Ford Fellow, Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural History, University of Erfurt, Germany.