LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh -- In a recent phone conversation with HuffPost India, Sofia Ahmed described the excitement that washed over her as she headed to hear Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak at a Bharatiya Janata Party rally in Kanpur, last year.
Not only was it the first political event that she had attended, the 23-year-old had organised over 50 cars with BJP supporters - all of them Hindu. It was her first major contribution to the BJP's campaign efforts for the UP Assembly elections. She plans to do more.
The novelty of that sight - a Muslim woman leading Hindu supporters to a BJP rally - was not lost on Ahmed. "People were shocked. They still don't believe that a Sunni Muslim woman is campaigning for the BJP," she said.
Ahmed is not the only Sunni Muslim woman who has gone over to the BJP in the past few months. Nida Khan, a 23-year-old from Bareilly, had voted for the Samajwadi Party in 2012, but planned to vote for the BJP, this time around. "Unfortunately, I was in Delhi that day. Otherwise, I would have cast my vote for the BJP. I have no doubt in my mind," she said.
People were shocked. They still don't believe that a Sunni Muslim woman is campaigning for the BJP.
What Khan and Ahmed have in common is their having been at the receiving end of Triple Talaq, the practice of instant divorce. They have been verbally and physically abused, with continuous threats to their wellbeing and safety.
Over the past year, the Modi Government at the Centre has pushed the Supreme Court to examine the legality of the Triple Talaq. While some perceive this as a genuine move to protect women's rights, others see it as an attempt to violate the fundamental right to religion and a back-channel way to realising BJP's larger objective of introducing a Uniform Civil Code.
If it comes to power in UP, the BJP has promised to link–up with the ongoing litigation in the Supreme Court after taking into account the opinion of Muslim women in the state "I have never been in politics but when I heard that the BJP was trying to bring an end to Triple Talaq, it was something that I could connect with," said Ahmed.
Khan doesn't buy into the argument that the BJP is singling out the Muslim community to demonize it and would forget the whole issue after the polls. "I believe that the concern is genuine otherwise why raise it. It is not as if Muslim women are voting for them because of it," she said.
I have never been into politics but when I heard that the BJP was trying to bring an end to Triple Talaq, it was something that I could connect with.
Several women leaders in the Muslim community whom HuffPost India interviewed said that with a few exceptions among the educated in the community, Muslim women have not voted for the BJP over Triple Talaq.
For a host of reasons, the BJP's efforts are looked upon with suspicion and its intention is regarded as disingenuous. On the more practical side, it is still the male members of the family and the religious leaders in their communities who tell women what to do.
Ahmed and Khan
The reason why both Ahmed and Khan emphasize that they are Sunni is because it is rarer to find BJP sympathizers among Sunnis as compared to the Shia Muslims.
Ahmed, who has a B. Com. degree, described her family as affluent and well-educated. Even though they are educated, the women in her family don't work and many of them are also victims of Triple Talaq. They have voted for the BJP and welcomed her joining the party this year, she said.
Ahmed described her husband as a drunk who would beat her, while carrying on with his "many girlfriends." He wielded the word Talaq as a weapon, to ensure that she never challenged or crossed him. "It was as if I did not exist. What is my value. The status of my marriage depended on his mood, whether he will take me home or leave me on the street," she said. "Even now, I don't know what my status is, is it one talaq, two talaq, three talaq? Or is it a joke?"
Even now, I don't know what my status is, is it one talaq, two talaq, three talaq? Or is it a joke.
Khan, an M. Com., belongs to a service background. In Khan's case, the trouble was over dowry and the fact that her family was only able to provide a Swift Desire car. Her husband and in-laws routinely harassed her for money. They wanted a Renault Duster.
Khan said that her in-laws once tried to push her off the roof. They beat her when she finally tried to leave for good. "He kicked me on my stomach. His father, his brother and mother all beat me as if I was an animal. No, it was as if I was the devil," she said.
Khan's Talaq came in the form of a letter which was sent to her maternal home, with her husband's relatives and a local religious leader arguing that there is no need for either her or any witness to even hear him say Talaq. "Triple Talaq is a way for men to dodge the law," she said.
He kicked me on my stomach. His father, his brother and mother all beat me as if I was an animal. No, it was as if I was the devil.
Both women are now mired in court cases and complaints relating to domestic violence. Both complain of police apathy and a criminal justice system that brings them no relief. It was only after Khan's husband threatened to kill her, saying that he would burn her face, that the police have given her protection. She feels that even this step was taken because of the local media coverage of her situation.
But even more than the beatings and death threats, what Khan remembers is how her husband once came and dragged her out of the examination hall while she was writing a paper. "No one stopped him. I still can't believe it. No one stopped him," she said.
When Ahmed returned to her maternal home and legal proceedings were initiated, a restlessness gripped her. "I could lead a comfortable life, bring up my child. But I wanted to do something. There is a line of women in my own house who are victims of Talaq. But I did not know how to start, where to get help from. That is why I joined the BJP. I'm determined to bring relief to women," she said.
Not A Wave
Ahmed and Khan are the exception according to women leaders in the Muslim community.
Shaista Ambar, head of the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, said that she meets women who are the victims of Triple Talaq, living unhappy lives. They are dependent on their brothers and fathers. While the brother struggles to support his own family and his divorced sister, the father is desperately worried about leaving his daughter alone in the world. But do such unhappy situations mean that the woman, her brother or father want to go out and vote for the BJP? "No", said Ambar.
There is a combination of reasons why there has been little momentum around Triple Talaq. There are deep divisions not only between the orthodox and moderate factions of the Muslim community but also within the moderates.
While some want a complete ban on Triple Talaq, others say that it is the corruption of the prescribed practice that ought to be blamed. There are others who want the conditions laid out in the Koran – pronouncing Talaq over three months accompanied by counseling – to be codified into civil law.
Some believe that the issue should not be part of the BJP's political agenda. Others say that it is the only way for the issue to get attention. While some believe that Triple Talaq is a matter for the Supreme Court to decide, others point out that the apex court already banned the practice in the Shamim Ara case in 2002.
But the main reason for the BJP's pitch not taking off is the fundamental lack of faith of Muslims in the party. "Muslim women don't believe that the BJP sympathies for them are real," said Ambar. "Actually, neither the BJP or the Maulanas empathise with Muslim women."
Muslim women don't believe that the BJP sympathies for them are real.
Ambar is founder of the all-women mosque in Lucknow which recently went 100 percent solar. The social activist says that she advises women to vote for the party whose candidate can bring in change even if it is the BJP. Last year, Ambar grabbed headlines when she met with the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and invited him to visit her mosque.
But Muslim women cannot ignore the fact that the BJP has not fielded a single Muslim candidate from UP, and that its leaders continue to play the communal card, Ambar said. While its more firebrand leaders talk of "Love Jihad" and make up acronyms like KASAB, even Modi has invoked religion in his speech.
While highlighting the equality of religion at his recent speech in Fatehpur, the prime minister said, "If there is electricity in Ramzan, it should also be there on Diwali."
There is also a practical side as to why BJP's Triple Talaq tempo has failed to take off. Muslim women rarely talk politics with each other, and when they do it is usually in their families when there is a male present, said Syeda Hameed, a women's rights activist and former member of the Planning Commission.
The conversation in these settings revolves around events such as the travesty in terror cases where Muslim men are unfairly accused, Hameed said. "It is a very sensitive situation. Three people are found to be innocent after 10 years," she said, referring to the Delhi blast case. "Muslims know that BJP has no faith in Muslims."
To Politicise Or Not To Politicise
Some in the Muslim community feel a deep resentment at being singled out. What about the suffering of Hindu and Christian women, they query. They believe that the BJP should not have politicised Triple Talaq. But Naish Hassan, a leading women's rights activist and founder of Bharat Muslim Mahila Aandolan is not one of them. "Did the Rajiv Gandhi government not politicize the Shah Bano case? Was that matter not with the court. Then, why this double standard?" she said.
Hussain views the matter quite pragmatically. She might not trust the BJP, but welcomes the "unprecedented attention" that the issue of Triple Talaq has received over the past few months.
Did the Rajiv Gandhi government not politicize the Shah Bano case? Was that matter not with the court. Then, why this double standard?
On whether this is part of the BJP's agenda to paint Muslims in a bad light, Hussain said, "No Hindu can do what the Muslim men have done to the Muslim women." "I can't comment on their motives. If they have no real sympathy for Muslim women then they'll drop it after the election. Muslim women know that," she continued.
Hussain is a Sunni Muslim, who witnessed her parent's house attacked and her family members killed in the communal violence triggered by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.
"No Hindu can do what the Muslim men have done to the Muslim women."
Having fought to end Triple Talaq for decades, Hussain is distressed that people talk of the BJP's intervention as if it was the first time that someone was taking a stand against the practice of instant divorce. The social activist pointed out that Muslim women were raising the issue of Triple Talaq since the early 20th century, with the Begum of Bhopal having spoken against the practice at a conference in Bhopal in 1915 and later in Lahore in 1917.
The fact that it takes BJP to draw attention to the issue was a failing of the women's rights movement in the country, she said. "Muslim women were left out of the women's rights movement for a long time," she lamented.
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