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Indian Women Are Reclaiming Religion, And It's About Time

17/05/2016 12:47 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Some may dub Trupti Desai's symbolic entry to the Haji Ali Dargah, Mumbai, and her attempt to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple, as a well-thought-out publicity stunt to further her political goals. Yet one has to give her and her organization Bhumata Ranragini Brigade due credit for their gumption to take on religious leaders and organizations, and for challenging regressive traditions that prevent women from entering the sanctum sanctorum of places of worship.

It is indeed a sad commentary that even after 69 years of India's independence, women in India have to fight for their most basic rights despite the Constitution promising all citizens freedom from discrimination based on sex, religion or caste. However, it is gratifying to see that more and more women are now coming forward to fight against various social evils, including those tied to religion. Their struggle is slowly yielding results.

It is gratifying to see that more and more women are now coming forward to fight against various social evils, including those tied to religion.

Recently, a brigade of more than 400 women tried to forcibly enter the Shani Shingnapur temple in the Maharashtra in a symbolic gesture to end gender disparity at religious places. The Bombay High Court, while upholding women's rights as guaranteed in the Constitution, have directed the state government not to deny a woman from entering the sanctum of the temple. The apex court of India, is seized of a similar matter, relating to another famous temple in the south, where girls and women between 10 and 50 are barred from entering the temple, on the grounds that menstruating women will pollute the temple and also offend the deity who is celibate! It is only a matter of time before the Apex court orders the temple authorities to open their gates to these women.

It's not just Hindu women who are fighting for their rights. Having suffered under discriminatory practices for centuries, Muslim women in India have started raising their voice against anachronistic Muslim divorce laws, which gives men the right to forsake their marriage on the flimsiest of grounds by uttering the word 'talaq' three times. Some men don't even bother to do this face to face, resorting instead to email, WhatsApp or social media platforms.

Having suffered under discriminatory practices for centuries, Muslim women in India have started raising their voice against anachronistic Muslim divorce laws.

In a move to fight against this injustice, a Muslim woman has approached the Supreme Court challenging the provision of triple talaq, as it violates women's fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. The court, while admitting her petition, has issued a notice to the Indian government questioning the legality of the right to divorce at will without following the due process of law. The court observed that such a practice is not only discriminatory against women, but also is not legally tenable.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLW), which represents the interests of Sunni Muslims, has questioned the locus standi of the apex court to decide on matters pertaining to Islamic Law, as according to the board, the provisions enshrined in the Qur'an cannot be decided by any court of law. The AIMPLB's position is in sharp contrast to the steps taken by various Muslim countries in modifying the personal law which makes it extremely difficult to divorce on flimsy grounds. It must be pointed out that several Muslim countries have criticized the concept of triple talaq, as it goes against gender equality and also negates any opportunity for reconciliation between spouses.

As many as 22 Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, have abolished triple talaq either explicitly or implicitly.

As many as 22 Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, have abolished triple talaq either explicitly or implicitly. Many Islamic countries like Turkey, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia and Indonesia have either reformed the law completely or brought about legally stringent preventive measures in this area. Tunisia brought about reform by de-recognition of the triple talaq within the circumference and perimeter of Islamic law. Sri Lanka went one step further by enacting the Marriage and Divorce (Muslim) Act, 1951, as amended up to 2006, which doesn't recognize instant divorce. The law requires that a husband wishing to divorce his wife give notice of his intention to a Qazi (Islamic judge), who should first attempt reconciliation between the couple in 30 days. If the attempt to reconcile between spouses fails, only then the husband can give talaq to his wife and that too in the presence of the Qazi and two witnesses. Pakistan introduced the Muslim Family Law Ordinance in 1961 which makes it mandatory for the husband to give a notice to the Chairman of the Union Council informing about his intentions of divorce. Moreover, there is a cooling off period of 90 days before giving effect to a divorce.

In India, due to the sensitivity of the subject and its potential to turn into religious unrest, it would be prudent for both the government and the courts to take the Muslim Personal Law Board into confidence before making changes in the existing practice. Further, the government and the Board should also consider inviting religious scholars from Pakistan, Tunisia and other countries where the laws have made it increasingly difficult to divorce without following due process.

The sooner we remove the dichotomy between liberal values and regressive traditions and customs, the sooner we will be able to take our nation forward.

It is time that the AIMPLB recognizes the changing social order and women's empowerment, and takes steps to remove regressive practices that have become out of sync with modern liberal values. It is suggested that family courts consisting of Muslim (both men and women) judges should be constituted to safeguard the interests of women. As regards barring Hindu women from entering the temples, the religious heads in India should raise their voice against this practice, and should open the doors of all temples to everyone, irrespective of their gender.

The sooner we remove the dichotomy between liberal values and regressive traditions and customs, the sooner we will be able to take our nation forward.

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