Muslim Feminism in India: Demanding a Gender-just Sharia

Written by Sharik Laliwala.

The debate on Sharia (Muslim Personal Law) in India has found a renewed vigour after the Union Government recommended the abolition of triple talaq in October 2016 in the Supreme Court. It has frustrated Muslim orthodox groups since it was immediately followed by a questionnaire sent by the Law Commission of India (which included a question on triple talaq) to religious organisations and civil society groups requesting views on Uniform Civil Code (UCC). Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described triple talaq as an injustice to Muslim women in a public rally in Uttar Pradesh; a stronghold of Muslim politics.  The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims (without reliable electoral data-support) that Muslim women widely voted for the party in the recent Uttar Pradesh election. The Supreme Court has decided to hear the issue of triple talaq in May 2017.

This debate merges sharia, the abolition of triple talaq and UCC beyond recognition, complicating the terms of discourse. It is portrayed, in popular media accounts, as resistance to any change negating the plurality of voices. This article, instead of focusing on orthodox Muslim groups, looks at the views of two prominent Muslim Feminist groups involved in this debate, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) and the All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board (AIMWPLB). Both counter orthodox mainstream Islamic organisations such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) through a constitutional-legal discourse and grassroots work without maintaining political connections.

A Tale of Two Nikahnamas

In the Indian Muslim community, the opposition to Muslim orthodoxy has been expressed in constitutional-legal language by women’s groups revolving around the nikahnama (marriage contract).  The BMMA and AIMWPLB have prepared their own versions of nikahnama codifying what they think represents a gender-just sharia representation.

AIMWPLB’s nikahnama is an mixture of reformative stances with some patriarchal notions. Though it invalidates divorce through electronic mediums of SMS, video conferencing or email, polygamy has been allowed to men for ‘appropriate’ reasons and with permission from the wife. More progressive moves include the sanctioning of divorce on a woman’s request without the requirement of consent from the husband.

Compared to this, the BMMA’s nikahnama incorporates more radical and progressive views. This organisation has recently been in the headlines for being successful in getting Haji Ali Dargah to allow the entry of women to the shrine’s inner-most section or the sanctum sanctorum. In its version of nikahnama, the injury to the authority of the ulema is unmitigated as the marriage is mandated to be registered in the ‘civil’ court. Further, the organisation has commissioned a detailed study gathering the testimonies of 117 Muslim women about triple talaq cases; though its methodology has been questioned. On the basis of this empirical data, BMMA considers the Union Government’s affidavit in Supreme Court for the abolition of triple talaq an appropriate measure.

Both these nikahnamas do not showcase a secular parlance; the sanction of nikahnama comes through citation of Quranic verses. The discourse of these two groups is not  secular, being based on the idioms of Islam. This explains why both groups are also wary of any attempt to bring in a UCC.  Zakia Soman, co-founder of BMMA, considers that a UCC may dilute the balance between ‘secularism and fundamental rights of the Constitution’ whereas Shaista Amber, founder of AIMWPLB, is distrustful of the motives of the Union Government.

Between Confrontation and Opening-Up

The real divide between the works of these Muslim feminist groups is about the role of Islam in public life. BMMA sees it as harmful for Muslims whereas AIMWPLB is ambivalent about it. This is because the arguments of these organisations in challenging Muslim orthodoxy from two different nebulae of civil society groups. For instance, BMMA maintains links with progressive and leftist civil society groups such as the All India Progressive Women’s Association and ANHAD. They also consult them for its reformation activities. It does not converse with other Muslim conservative groups.

Based in Mumbai, the BMMA seeks to change the entire space of political arguments about the Muslim community from Lucknow, Delhi or Hyderabad to Western India; and with the change in space, the change of language is inevitable — its publications are chiefly in English and not in Urdu. It confronts the orthodoxy in its fullest by evolving arguments through concepts of human rights to interpret sharia in a liberal framework.

On the other hand, AIMWPLB’s terms of discourse are stuck between opening up the ulema body and interfering with its authority. It argues for women’s role in religious spaces; it creates this through the building of mosques for women with the symbols of prominent Muslim women of the Prophet Mohammed’s time. Its publications are fused with imagery of Islam and are in Urdu given its operations are from Lucknow. Thus, it is possible for AIMWPLB to maintain links with conservative Muslim groups, unlike BMMA.

More recently, both these organisations have codified their views on sharia through draft bills which are in the public domain. Discussion on it is lethargic and the possibility of its acceptance almost minuscule. But their opposition to the orthodoxy has created an alternative space within Muslim community in ways which are unprecedented. Muslim women can seek a remedy to family matters in these organisation’s sharia courts; earlier the option was limited to approaching orthodox groups’ sharia courts. But therein lies the paradox of Muslim politics: progressives too are not truly secular.

Sharik Laliwala is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Contemporary Indian Studies at the King’s India Institute in King’s College London. Image Credit: CC by Indian Muslim Women/ Wikimedia Commons



Categories: Identity politics, India, Religious Minorities, Uncategorized, Women

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