Nepal: Muslim women use Nepalese Family Law to counter 'triple talaq'

Women in Nepal’s minority Muslim community are increasingly contesting through the courts the divorce settlements imposed on them by their husbands. The women say they are the victims of an abuse of Islamic law by their husbands.
Nepal’s Muslim community, which has been living in the country for many generations, makes up four percent of the country’s 27 million people and is concentrated in the Terai region, predominantly in its western part, according to the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
“All he did was say ‘talaq’ on the telephone and I was threatened never to return home,” said Kausarjaha Idrisi, a 32-year-old mother of two who now lives in extreme poverty in the town of Nepalgunj on the western edge of the Terai region in southern Nepal. For the last 15 years, since the divorce, Idrisi and her children have been living in a shack. They cannot afford to buy enough clothes or food and the children have been unable to attend school. Her husband, Sahim Ahmed, refused to provide any support.

She complained that men were misusing Islamic Law, which has a procedure called `talaq’ for ending a marriage: A Muslim husband in Nepal can divorce his wife by repeating the word `talaq’ three times.

However, Idris has finally broken her silence and gathered the courage to fight for justice. With the help of local Muslim lawyers, she took her husband and his family to the district court in Nepalgunj to win her right to a share of the family property. The case is taking time to resolve, but Idrisi hopes she will win the legal battle.

“Muslim women want to end the misuse of religion that is victimising them,” said lawyer Mohana Ansari, who has been helping women to fight for their rights. She said men often divorced their wives for trivial reasons. "Many Muslim husbands divorce their wives in a fit of temper or for trivial reasons. This is an insult to our religion," Maulana Tabar Banjari, a prominent religious leader in Nepal, told IRIN. Without mutual consent such practices should stop, Banjari said.

“The problem is that `talaq’ has been used to get an easy divorce,” said local Muslim intellectual Iqbal Iraqi. "Our religion respects marriage and preaches that `talaq’ can be said only when there is constant bickering between husband and wife; then they can divorce by mutual consent,” said another intellectual, Nazimo Ansari.

According to a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Nepal Muslim Samaj Bikash Chetna Kendra, which works on raising social awareness among Muslim women and vulnerable groups, there is a very high divorce rate in the Muslim community. A study it carried out in 2006 in Nepalgunj found over 235 cases of women whose marriages had ended after their husbands invoked `talaq’.

The NGO pointed out that there could be hundreds more such divorces in the villages, where rural Muslim women lack access to legal advice. “The problem of `talaq’ is very serious in the villages; Muslim women have been victimised,” said the NGO’s president, Mohammed Sher.

Nepalese law

Nepal’s Family Law, amended in 2006, provides for equal division of assets upon divorce. It stipulates that divorce is permitted only if one partner's infertility is certified by a government-recognised medical board. One-sided divorces without mutual consent are illegal in Nepali law.

“Nepalese laws that protect women’s rights are strong weapons to help these poor victims and they are now increasingly becoming aware and empowered as well,” said Laxmi Poudel, a prominent lawyer in Nepalgunj.

Over the past year, the number of court cases of `talaq’ victims has been increasing, according to local women’s rights groups. “Many are nowadays seen approaching the courts and this is an inspiring sight,” said lawyer Abdul Ajij Musalman, who added that Muslim women had gradually lost all fear of being socially ostracised.

“We have to make this a national campaign so that more Muslim women are aware of their rights and able to protect themselves,” he said.

“The violations against Muslim women should be actively protested. Wrongful use of our religion is only hurting poor women and their children,” said Mohammadi Siddi, president of the Fatima Foundation, a local organisation leading a campaign to protect the rights of Muslim Nepalese women.

Although the misuse of `talaq’ continues, the movement against misuse of the practice is gaining momentum, as evident from the increasing number of Muslim women who are now speaking out for their rights, according to the Fatima Foundation.

“We want to end this exploitation practiced in the name of religion,” said Butul Khan Pathan, who filed a case at Banke District court against her husband who divorced her to marry another woman. Pathan fought successfully to get half of her husband’s property and now serves as an example to others.

8 August 2007