The Manusmriti encodes a social order which firmly relegates women to a secondary position in society, apart from many derogatory references to them. Whatever positive reference exists is in relation to the men of her family-predominantly as a mother. It is but obvious that organizations that uphold the Manusmriti and therefore think along its lines will not really be advocating or executing anything contrary to its spirit, whatever they may profess publicly.
This is the only relevant context in which to view the sudden preoccupation of the Prime Minister and his Central government with the rights and issues of Muslim women. This is while it goes without saying that triple talaq in the form practised in India is a retrograde and feudal practice which has been held invalid by several Muslim countries. That it has not been already ostracised in Muslim personal law in India by now, even though practised by only a miniscule number of that community, speaks about the stranglehold of Islamist clergy over the Muslims in such matters. This stranglehold is of course regenerated by every repetition of state sponsored violence against Muslims, which also enforces ghettoization in practice.
The concern of the Prime Minister and his Govt. for his ’Muslim sisters’ extends only to issues which allow his Govt. to interfere with the Muslim Personal Law. He has not taken up cudgels on their behalf when it comes to justice to the gang raped Muslim women in the anti Muslim violence in Muzaffarnagar, for justice to the Muslim women of Gujarat who were violated in the anti Muslim violence there or who have fought for justice against the killing of their men folk in the same violence. He has no sympathy with his ‘Muslim sisters’ widowed by lynchings by gau rakshaks. He is not bothered by their poverty, their abysmal educational opportunities, lack of support for higher education. He is with them on issues which allow RSS fiddling with the Muslim Personal law, but not for enforcement of Domestic Violence Act of India. That is a law which applies equally to Hindu and Muslim and all women citizens of India. The Prime Minister has evinced no interest in ensuring implementation of this law which allows deserted women (Hindus included) space within the matrimonial home to be insured by an officer under the Act. It is a law which penalizes men if they exercise ‘patriarchal rights’ and beat their wives. So his deserted Muslim sisters, those beaten up by husbands, can continue to suffer as they are covered by a law forced through by the ‘hated’ democratic and progressive sections backing the women’s organizations fighting for it and totally against the spirit of a Manusmriti inspired social order.
That the Prime Minister should have led parliament into meddling with the field of Personal laws is explicable by a later statement of the ex Chairman of the Law Commission in early January 2018. He said that if a Uniform Civil Code cannot be brought, then the Personal Laws of different communities will be reformed. The target of the BJP RSS govts is only the Muslim Personal Laws and that too not because of how the women see them but because they pertain to Muslims. They can be used both to demonize them as also to browbeat them in the name of defending Muslim women. Already, Muslims are characterized as ‘terrorists’ as a general usage by the RSS and the govts it leads both at the Centre and in the states, love ‘jihadists’ when they marry outside their community, ‘anti nationals and gau killers’ because their religion allows them to eat beef, ridiculed for having multiple wives as though they are all polygamous and viciously attacked for ‘over populating’ India even when there is just no basis for this allegation in facts.
This also explains the Prime Minister’s concern over polygamy, whose practice may be sanctioned only by Muslim personal law but whose practice among caste Hindus is fairly remarkable. The issue among non Muslims lies actually in securing proof of a second marriage, as anyone who has dealt with the law against bigamy well knows. Till a second marriage is proved, the law does not come into play. The law on adultery can only be invoked by the husband of the married woman and the wife of the man committing adultery is not considered an aggrieved party for purpose of invoking action under that law- anyway both bigamy and adultery are not criminal offences. The Muslim Personal law is also deliberately used by Hindus to contract ‘legal’ second marriages by both partners converting to that religion only to contract the second marriage but not practising that religion in any form either before or after, to the extent of never even using the alternate name. Prominent MPs of the ruling BJP can also be counted in this list.
The motive is clear even in the current Bill on triple Talaq before Parliament. The Supreme Court of India, by a majority judgement, held this form of divorce to be untenable. It did not stipulate criminalizing tripe talaq. However, the RSS-BJP Central Govt. could not let go of this opportunity to demonize the community. One part of the Bill holds such form of Talaq invalid. It means this is no talaq at all and the marriage continues to exist. But with this has been strung the issues of maintenance as “sustenance allowance” of wife and children and punitive measures against the man. When the marriage continues, the wife and children have access to all resources of a family, why only to a sustenance allowance? And stipulating a prison term is the best deterrent for women actually seeking saving of the marriage. The husband can immediately take recourse to legal forms of talaq, the marriage breaking not because the Supreme Court struck down triple talaq, but because he will be spend three years in jail for it. There are no doubt a hundred other questions attached, of how the man will deal with her after this frustration of intent, of how desertion is to be countered etc. But many of these questions are linked to the general issue of divorce and desertion.
The Bill before Parliament seeks to make triple talaq a cognizable and non bailable offence. However, adultery and bigamy are considered non cognizable and bailable though there are 5 year and 7 year jail sentences respectively attached to either of them. The right to complain is restricted as given above. But by making triple talaq a cognizable offence, it virtually means that anyone, including those outside the family, can lodge the FIR. Is there anything to choose regarding the anti women character of the three offences?
Invalidation of triple Talaq does not mean that divorce is outlawed. It also does not take away the basic difference in the attitude to marriage between the Hindu religion and Islam. The Muslim marriage is a contract entered into by the 2 parties and thus divorce is technically not so unimaginable; it is a different matter how it gets viewed by Muslim women in the concrete context of semifeudal India with its feudal cultural practices and attitudes. Muslim men who view the breakdown of their marriage as irrevocable will continue to have access to other divorce procedures.
The question of desertion is the actual question affecting women and is a general question pertaining to all communities. In Hindus it is even revered and appreciated when practised by later life ascetics and pracharaks especially when they are Prime Ministers. This is linked to our prevailing feudal culture and also to women lacking both economic and social ability for a fight back. Second, as mentioned, when the men contract other relationships, cognizance is taken of adultery under the specific law only if the husband of the other woman files a complaint against a man and the law on bigamy needs proof of a second marriage if the first wife is to complain, which is virtually impossible to come by. Thus desertion is a very big question for women from all religions.
1961 was the last time a Census looked at marriage by religions. (11-1-2018 scroll India article-Muslim women and surprising facts about polygamy in India). It should be soberly considered that the percentage of polygamous Hindus and Muslims was virtually same- 5.8% and 5.7% – though Hindus are not allowed a second marriage. Tribals had the highest % of over 15% and Buddhists also had a high rate. In a Govt. survey in1974 it was recorded that 5.6% Muslims and 5.8% caste Hindus had more than one wife (source same). The 3rd National Family Health Survey (2006) said 2% husbands in India have more than one wife- though all these figures probably pertain to wives socially acknowledged. The common reasons recorded were due to lack of children/sons from the first wife, property issues and others. It should never be forgotten also, that when changes were made in the Hindu personal laws in 1950s, it was vehemently opposed by RSS and their ilk.
Regarding all other issues regarding not just Muslim Personal laws but all Personal Laws and also the question of a Uniform Civil Code- the bitter truth is that progressive changes against unfair practices will work only if the women themselves are willing to use the tools and assert themselves. In that event it is necessary that all progressive forces as well as the state structure stands with them. Browbeating women into accepting and applauding a Code which is actually designed to humiliate and bring to heel all minorities, to further the dream of a Hindu Rashtra and whose outlook is controlled by those who swear by Manusmriti has nothing to do with women’s aspirations of equality. It will rest on their backwardness and the prevalent patriarchal understanding which also envelopes them, if they think justice is being done to them. For this, Hindutva forces also look to rally Caste Hindu sections to support them as they will be ‘vanquishing Muslim laws’ when the reality is that the upper caste patriarchal chauvinist values espoused by RSS are against all women including the rights of upper caste women for equal status in families and for freedom of choice.
It will be relevant to recall the experience of the initiative of Awaz-e-Niswan. It was an attempt to frame a gender fair nikahnama and give Muslim couples the choice of this alternative. Framed after extensive discussions, with the participation of Muslim women and also women’s organizations and also many democratic men and women, the initiative died a death with the failure of the Muslim Personal Law Board to endorse it. No movement was built to defend it. But now the RSS is pitting state power into criminalizing an outmoded practise like triple talaq ( as mentioned earlier, most Muslim countries anyway do not allow this practice) and projecting itself as a friend of Muslim women while it is gender unfriendly on the question of women’s rights. The Muslim Personal Law Board has therefore woken up and is now talking of an alternative nikahnama.
While on the issue, one concrete problem before couples going for interreligious marriages should also be considered- it also gives an easy excuse to coin the term love jihad. The Special marriages Act of India, accessible to all citizens, entails a problem- it gives a 30 day notice period in which both sets of parents and the relevant police stations are given notice of the marriage. The logic is that any legal objection to the marriage can be brought up (typically as in “Jane Eyre”). The problem is, that couples going for inter religious marriages against the will of the parents can be easily stopped, kidnapped, killed, the girl married off etc. They need some private form of marriage. If there is a nikah, the non Muslim has to convert and for a Hindu marriage complete with a certificate of marriage, the non Hindu has to become a Hindu. Couples are usually settling it the patriarchal way both ways- the girls convert, though there are known instances of the boy converting to either religion if the girl’s family is then willing to accept the relationship. That is why the hue and cry is not so much about Hindu boys taking Muslim brides though that is also happening; that is a gain in ‘Hindu’ recruitment.
The question of women themselves being conscious of their rights and fighting the feudal patriarchal code is all important in all this talk of rights and sisters and justice. Triple talaq was invalidated by the Supreme Court on the basis of petitions by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan (BMMA). Yet Muslim women were shown distributing sweets when the bill criminalizing Tripe talaq was passed in the Lok sabha; even if the percentage of such talaqs are minuscule, thousands of women have been humiliated in this manner. Ishrat Jahan, a leader of the BMMA, joined the BJP in gratitude and BMMA is now demanding a move against polygamy as allowed under Muslim Personal Law? As this is a women’s organization, many BJP sympathizers ask why criticize the Prime Minister and the RSS?
Why indeed. So, let us start with another law- the Prevention of Child Marriages. Are not child marriages rampant over whole areas despite the existence of this law and that too across classes? Because the social conditions, the patriarchal mindset has not changed. Second marriages for relations for begetting sons, often with the consent of the first wife, have not stopped in Hindus especially of upper castes- in fact, an interesting aspect of the oh-so-modern surrogacy is that Indians (couples and men) demand a male child of a specific colour. It is in this India that the BMMA is being flaunted by the BJP. This women’s group does not concern itself with the right of Muslim women and men not to be demonized for what they eat, not to be ostracised as gau killers and anti nationals, with justice for Muslim women victims of anti Muslim violence, justice for Zakhia (Gujarat), Nilofer and her sister in law (Kashmir), Muslim widows in current vigilante violence, with struggle in the community for educating Muslim girls or even for enforcement of Domestic Violence Act for Muslims. It is not to say that one organization does not have the right to have only selective concerns- in this case of aiding in rewriting the Muslim Personal law and inserting criminal penalties for civil issues. But not participating in general struggles or even moves against domestic violence, gender violence and even other specific anti Muslim women violence makes clear that the concerns are too circumscribed. The whole point is that unless patriarchal values are challenged and patriarchy stops receiving state support, social thinking will not change. This needs a society with equality of rights and opportunities for all and within such a society alone can women realize themselves as fully equal and assert their rights. The RSS actively seeks to enforce the most extreme patriarchal values and a social setup in which Muslims and Dalits have no rights at all even to existence. The BMMA and the patronizing of Muslim ‘sisters’ is only a means to that end.
Modi, of course, is on a spree of winning electoral friends, but it is now not drawing applause so well anymore with his old friends, the corporate media, post the Gujarat elections. He devoted his ‘Mann ki Baat’ to assuring Muslim women’, his ‘sisters’, the right to go on Haj pilgrimage without a male escort or ‘mehraan’. He spoke at length about how this heaped indignities upon them. He’s right, of course, except that the applications before the Govt. were from groups of elderly Muslim women from Kerala. Since 2014, i.e. since three years the Saudi Govt. permits women above 45 years to go in a group for Haj without a mehraan or male escort. Two months prior to the Mann Ki Baat, the Indian govt. officials brought a note to this effect that the Govt. was disallowing applications which the Saudi authorities would have passed. Modi still cannot send his young Muslim ‘sisters,’ solo or in groups, to that country for haj without a mehraan. The problem is that discriminatory practices in religious places exist right here in this country concerning much vaster numbers of women and Modi Govt. and RSS can change them. There are any number of temples that do not allow entry of Dalits. The Sabrimala temple does not allow entry of women between the ages of 10 to 50 years and has recently decreed that women must carry age proofs. People of other faiths are not allowed entry into the Pushkar Temple, the only temple to Brahma in the country. It is another matter that this helpfully concedes that Brahma is not related to the life of most humans in the world. The point is that RSS will not do any of these things except in tokenism- it is upper caste, chauvinist, patriarchy.
From the point of view of Justice and equality, there is little doubt that all personal laws have to change. Any Code can be forcibly declared ‘uniform’; the point for the women of India is, is that Code reflective of values which hold women to be fully equal in society? Second, will the state and all its wings, will the social order, actually ensure that this Code can be the practice for all women, or is it just an ornamental piece of writing. Personal laws touch intimate relations and operate within the family. Patriarchal values flourish in these cocoons. Until women are ready to assert equality- which they will do en mass only if they have a supportive, anti patriarchal society and state- and until all people are equal in terms of opportunities and rights so that women are not ghettoized as Dalits or Muslims or Kashmiris or something else, what use is it if patriarchal personal laws are replaced by a patriarchal uniform Code?
A progressive uniform civil code can only be born out of a revolutionary movement to overhaul the society which sustains patriarchy. It will not be static but will develop as the notion of equality develops.
The urgent need is for progressive women’s organizations to build a broad based and sustained credible struggle, so that women of different sections seek to voice their issues also through it. The upsurge of December 2012, powerful as it was, was spontaneous. It is a long standing fact that when such struggles win changes and awareness, both have to be kept alive by continual pressure and alertness which organized struggles can build. Despite all the rhetoric after 2012, neither courts nor govts are ensuring certainity of convictions in cases of sexual violence on women-where Dalits are concerned, infact, the current dispensation’s position is dictated by the Manusmriti. Thus, in the face of public anger against sexual violence against women, while Govts. fail in giving justice, they hide their incompetence or unwillingness behind extreme posturings already rejected by the democratic women’s movement. This explains the Haryana Govt. saying it will hang those who rape minors under 12 years; the fact is that in successive cases in a space of weeks its miserable failure to protect women, schoolgirls and dalits has been has miserably exposed. Women end up welcoming such strident sloganeering when the organized democratic movement for their rights is weak. This is also true of the affected Muslim women who applaud the BJP’s expressions of concern for them.