India is in the midst of a fierce debate challenging the Islamic practice of "triple talaq" which grants husbands the power to dissolve a marriage by just saying "talaq" ("I divorce you") three times. After a slew of petitions by Muslim women to the country's Supreme Court, asking for a ban on the practice, and an outcry by Muslim clerics in opposition, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said triple talaq "destroys" women. I travelled to a remote village in northern India to meet a 20-year-old woman whose husband divorced her using triple talaq—over the phone.
It is a bright sunny day when I meet this shy young woman in a small, dark room, tucked away at the back of her parents' house. A few weeks have passed since Asma's ex-husband called her from Saudi Arabia and divorced her by uttering the word "talaq" three times. The tension is still palpable and the only one oblivious to it is her one-year-old daughter who wants to play and repeatedly tries to get out of her grandmother's lap. Divorce, after only two years of marriage, and given in one instant, had numbed Asma into silence. Today, she wraps a scarf to cover her face and speaks hesitantly as I strain to make out what she is saying.
She had a happy marriage with Shahnawaz Hussain, she tells me, until a year earlier when she delivered a daughter. The family had desired a son and that is when things started changing. "At first they used to only mock me for not bearing a son and for not bringing dowry, but later it changed to physical abuse," she says. She alleges that sticks were used to beat her and she'd often fall sick. Even then she was not expecting to be divorced. "A little over a month back when I had come to my parents' home, my husband quietly left for Saudi Arabia, and then later called up only to give me 'talaq', to say that he had set me free," she reveals.
Asma's case is probably the first in the area when this practice has been challenged, and where a woman has found rare support amongst village elders.
In a nearby village, Shahnawaz Hussain's family deny all allegations of torture and claim that the divorce was a result of disagreements between the husband and wife. They refuse to share his contact details and refuse to comment on the method of "talaq-ul-biddat" or instant triple talaq. Shahnawaz's elder brother, Mohammad Shah Nazar says, "We are illiterate and ignorant, only a Muslim cleric can advise on the issue." He explains that in this and surrounding villages of the North Indian state Uttar Pradesh, men travel in large numbers to the Middle East for work. Locals tell me that pronouncing triple talaq on the phone from there is becoming fairly "common."
Asma's case is probably the first in the area when this practice has been challenged, and where a woman has found rare support amongst village elders. This is a remote village with low levels of literacy and none of the men I meet have heard of the petitions questioning triple talaq in the country's Supreme Court. The petitions, filed by various women and women's groups, raise the issue of gender discrimination against Muslim women by questioning instant triple talaq as "arbitrary divorce." The petition has found support in the Indian government which has responded to the court by stating that triple talaq is "misplaced in a secular country." But it has raised the hackles of Muslim clerics. And one of the top decision-making bodies for Muslims in the country, All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has said "the court cannot interfere in the religious freedom of minorities."
The Indian Constitution allows Muslims, the biggest religious minority group in the country, to regulate matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance through their own civil code. Now, after responding to the petitions in Supreme Court, the government has posted a questionnaire online seeking the public's response to whether a "uniform civil code" should be introduced in India. Such a code would apply uniformly to all religions, castes and tribes, and Muslims and other minorities would lose their existing right to apply their own civil code or laws for family matters. The AIMPLB has boycotted this process and called the Hindu nationalist Modi government's intentions "suspect."
Mohammad Irfan calls it an "illness fast spreading in the community", adding, "if we don't stop this soon, our women's lot will worsen."
Women's groups have long campaigned for reform in personal laws to make them fairer to women. The controversial process of pronouncing triple talaq in one instance is prevalent amongst Sunni Muslims across India, even though three sects of Sunni Islamic law do not consider it valid anymore. Asma's village follows the pronouncements of the Deoband School—the fourth sect of Sunni Islam that still agrees with instant triple talaq. This makes the call for change by her village even more significant. It has only helped matters that Asma's uncle is the village head and has engaged with the villagers to question an age-old practice.
In his family home's courtyard, about 50 people have assembled. The local cleric is also in attendance and a passionate discussion ensues. Finally, a 70-year-old man asks the gathering to hush and declares to me that now there is agreement amongst them that "instant triple talaq is unfair to women." Mohammad Irfan calls it an "illness fast spreading in the community", adding, "If we don't stop this soon, our women's lot will worsen." He explains that the practice continues to be perpetuated by the community because, "even after a man gives instant divorce to his wife, other families readily wed their daughters to him once he's earned lots of money in the Middle East."
But the local cleric disagrees. He points out that Asma's divorce is valid. According to him, if a man utters the word "talaq" three times in one instance or writes it thrice and communicates it to his wife by any means, that would be a correct way of divorcing her. Over the past years, Muslim women have approached Indian courts and got relief in cases where they felt that they had been given triple talaq wrongly. They asserted that triple talaq has to be pronounced over a period of three to six months according to Islamic law (called "talaq-ul-ahsan"), leaving ample scope for corrective action and resolution of differences between the couple. But this information hasn't percolated down to villages across India. Therein lies the challenge for the Muslim community to make sense of the different interpretations of Islamic law, political positioning and ideas of equality and justice.