India: Imrana's dilemma

South Asia Citizen's Wire
The pronouncements of Muslim clerics following the conviction of Imrana's father-in-law for rape are revealing in many respects. After Imrana's alleged rape, Muslim clerics held that there had been no rape and she continued to be her husband's wife.
Since the court verdict, they have hardened their position. They aggressively assert that Imrana is barred by the Shariat (Islamic canonical law) from her husband and cannot remain his wife.
The Muslim clerical mindset is remarkably patriarchal because articulation of the Shariat took place at a time when patriarchy had become deeply entrenched.

Perhaps, they wanted to protect Imrana's father-in-law and, by offering her the sop that she could continue to live with her husband, kept the door open for her to refrain from pressing her allegation.

Since she refused to oblige, the clerics have taken a strongly punitive stance, citing the Shariat as the basis of their opinion. A clerical opinion allegedly based on the Shariat cannot be easily challenged.

As a class, the clerics are not open to reasoned debate. By their education and orientation, which allows no scope for critical reflection, they are prone to repeating the texts as they have read them, whether or not they are relevant to the issue at hand.

No point is likely to be served by pointing out that they are looking at the entire Imrana episode from a mechanical mindset. Muslim clerics commonly assert that the Qur'an is a complete text and provides answers to all questions.

If this had indeed been the case, the crisis of legitimacy as to the interpretation of the text would never have arisen.

It arose precisely because the Qur'an did not contain clear-cut directions on many aspects of life and opinions arrived at through extraneous processes had to be legitimised. This is a continuing crisis and is amply demonstrated by the Imrana case.

A situation where a father-in-law rapes his son's wife was not contemplated in the Qur'an or any of the legal texts from which the Shariat is derived. In the absence of any such clear-cut direction on what course of action should be taken to deal with such a situation, two choices were open.

The first was to mechanically apply to the present a situation described in the text that is remotely similar to it. This shuts the mind to the uniqueness of the new situation, without asking whether such blind application would be tenable.

The second was to construct a principle to deal with the new situation, keeping the burden of the moral teachings of the Qur'an in mind. Lacking inclination, training and expertise, the clerics were incapable of such an innovative response.

Even if they were capable and inclined, it would have been difficult for them to thrash out such a response. The clerics are a remarkably divided lot and would have found it difficult to arrive at any consensus.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that they responded to a situation not anticipated by the Qur'an by mechanically extending the provision of the Shariat relating to the prohibited degrees of marriage to a situation which developed long after the marriage.

What option does this leave for Imrana? Should she accept the clerical verdict and part company with her husband? Or, should she assert her right as an individual and demand that she should go on living with her husband as his legitimate wife?

What option Imrana eventually chooses is an open question, but central to her predicament is the distinction between collective and individual rights.

Pursuing the hierarchical worldview of Islam, according to which the individual stands in a subordinate position vis-a-vis the community, the clerics insist that the collective right of the community to adhere to the Shariat must override Imrana's individual right to raise the rape issue without jeopardising her marital status.

It is possible that Imrana may succumb to social pressure and fear of social ostracisation and may eventually accept defeat. However, the issue of balance between collective versus individual rights would still remain.

Muslim clerics, and Muslims generally, invoke democracy to demand their right to abide by the Shariat, and democracy does grant them this right. However, democracy equally demands that collective rights do not trample upon individual rights.

If the contradiction between the two becomes too sharp, the state the secular state at that will have to step in to restore the balance. Muslim clerics must realise that the entitlement to live according to the Shariat is not a licence to perpetuate oppression of an individual member of the community.

Unless they are sensitive to this fine distinction, they would be largely to blame if the state steps in to protect individuals, in this case Imrana, against oppression and denial of legiti-mate rights by a collectivity in the name of religion.

Clerics may not understand this discourse or may be indifferent to it, but the state cannot afford to do so. If Imrana can muster courage, she should pose what appears to be her personal predicament as the predicament of the secular state.

The writer is a political scientist.

by Imtiaz Ahmad
The Times of India, 24 Oct, 2006