Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Can Muslim women get freedom ever?

Rehana, a Shiite Muslim woman, was 24 when she got married to a man from her own community. Her parents and her brother had some reservations about the man because he was known to be “mentally unstable”. But his family insisted that he had recovered from his mental illness. So despite opposition from her parents, Rehana married the man because she liked him.

But little did she know that her life would turn into utter misery right after her marriage. Her in-laws forced her to do all the household chores. If she failed to do their bidding, her husband — who earned as little as Rs 4,000 a month as a private tutor — would beat her up.

Things came to a head when Rehana got pregnant. Her in-laws alleged that she was carrying the child of another man. They even refused to take care of the new born. Complaints to the police proved futile as her in-laws were friendly with the local political leaders and even the mafia. Finally, Rehana’s family went to their local maulana and she was allowed to exercise her right to divorce.

“It was all because of dowry. Before marriage, they said that they did not want anything, but afterwards we had to keep buying them things to prevent them from hurting my sister,” says Arshad, Rehana’s brother.

For women like Rehana, the Lucknow-based All India Shia Personal Law Board (AISPLB) is ensuring that help is at hand. Founded in 1972 and dedicated to regulating the laws governing the Shia community, the AISPLB has decided to ostracise or excommunicate men who beat their wives or leave them on flimsy grounds. The new regulation is tantamount to a law that will be binding on every member of the Shia community, which apparently accounts for one-fifth of the total Muslim population in India.

According to Maulana Yasoob Abbas, AISPLB spokesperson in Lucknow, representatives of the board in each state will make sure that the Shia community there severs all links with men who are found guilty of assaulting their wives or deserting them. “It will be a social boycott. The punishment can be considered law and all Shias should abide by it,” says Abbas.

The board has also launched a helpline to receive complaints from Shia women regarding domestic violence. “We have formed a panel of lawyers from within the community who will help women,” says Mohammed Ahmad Ali Khan, the spokesperson of the AISPLB in Delhi. “We will also launch a website soon where women can mail us about their problems.”

So what prompted the board to come up with such an initiative? Ahmad Ali Khan says that they had been receiving a number of complaints from Shia women against domestic violence, dowry demands and even female foeticide. “We carried out a survey in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore and also parts of Uttar Pradesh,” says Khan. “We found that four out of every five women in the community have either suffered domestic violence or were divorced by their husbands on trifling grounds.”

The board also found that cruelty to women was not confined to the low income groups alone. “There’s a higher percentage of such cases among educated and well-to-do Shias,” says Khan.

The AISPLB wants to deal with female foeticide in the country as well. And once again, it has decided that anyone found guilty of female foeticide will be ostracised by the community.

Similarly, measures to punish unlawful dowry demands are on the anvil. Board spokespersons say that the demand for dowry is rampant across the community even though their religion ordains that it’s the groom who gives mehar (dower or nuptial gift) to the bride on the day of the marriage.

Legal experts have welcomed these initiatives in favour of women from the Shia board. But they add a note of caution. “Like Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, this edict from the Shia board can be misused by women to harass men. So the board should thoroughly look into complaints before ostracising men,” says Zafirul Islam, lawyer, Calcutta High Court.

Yet others argue that the new regulations are not practical. “Maulanas have their own way of interpreting our religious texts. They can issue farmannamas on boycotting men, but in this day and age, who’s going to listen to them,” asks Shayesta Bano, president of the West Bengal chapter of International Human Rights Protection Association, a non governmental organisation that offers counselling and legal services to women belonging to the minority community.

Moreover, she points out that despite being well educated and economically independent, few Muslim women come out in the open with complaints against their husbands and in-laws. “The social pressure is so much that they find it tough to walk out of their marriages. It will perhaps take another decade to gain that kind of independence,” says Bano.

But the AISPLB maintains that the new rules against domestic violence are pathbreaking, as they are the first of their kind in the entire Muslim community in India. Of course, this is not the first time that the board has tried to protect women from abusive husbands. It drafted a new model Shia nikahnama (marriage agreement or contract signed by the bride and the groom in the presence of arbitrators and witnesses) in 2006 which granted the right of divorce to women.

As a safeguard against desertion and cruelty, the bride’s part of the model nikahnamasays, “If the groom disappears for two consecutive years and does not provide essentials to me, I shall have the right to refer to Hakim-e-Shar'a for divorce (and) the groom should delegate power to divorce to me in this regard.” Further, it adds, “...if the husband uses physical force and if his action causes danger to my life or limbs,...the husband will delegate to me the right to divorce him...”

The AISPLB says that in addition to these clauses in the nikahnama, it has now instructed ulemas (Muslim priests) to ask the groom’s family to decide on the mehar well before the marriage so that the bride’s family can utilise the money for wedding costs. And should there be any dowry demands from the groom’s family, that too can be sternly handled.

With the AISPLB having taken a bold measure to tackle domestic violence in the Shia community, will the other two Muslim personal law boards — namely, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and All India Women Muslim Personal Law Board (AIWMPLB) — follow suit?

Kalbe Sadiq, prominent Islamic scholar and vice-president, AIMPLB, says that the problem lies in the basic differences between jurisprudences of the all India board and the Shia board. “But of course such an initiative against domestic violence or female foeticide will work for women’s empowerment in the community,” he says.Some say it’s time for the Muslim personal law boards to sit together to find solutions to common issues. The need of the hour is to rise above difference, says Islam.

Women like Rehana could not agree more.

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