When his daughter, who had been harassed for dowry and even tortured, was divorced by her husband uttering the word talaq thrice, Ghaziabad-based carpenter Sabir this week decided to reach out to the most powerful person he could think of – the local MLA.

On the MLA Atul Garg’s advice, an FIR was lodged against Sabir’s son-in-law. Garg told Sabir that security too could be provided if his daughter, who has a 2-year-old son, moved court. But any intervention beyond this was not possible, said Garg, who is also a minister in the Uttar Pradesh government. After all, triple talaq was valid under the Muslim personal law in India, and the government can do nothing until the law changes, Garg told PTI. 

Like Sabir and his daughter, the lives of thousands of Muslim families across the country have been upended because men abandoned their wives by saying the word talaq thrice As Sabir grapples with the crisis, the Supreme Court in New Delhi, not too far from his home in Ghaziabad , is readying to hear from tomorrow a clutch of petitions on the issue that is at the centre of a tussle between orthodoxy and reform in the community — the former upholding its validity under the Shariat and the latter saying that it is regressive, anti- women and had no place in Islam.

The apex court will also hear pleas challenging the validity of polygamy and ‘nikah halala’ under which a divorced Muslim woman has to marry again, consummate the marriage and then break it if she wants to go back to her first husband. Among those supporting triple talaq are the dominant All India Muslim Personal Law Board, and the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind.

At a meeting on Sunday, the Jamaat posed a rhetorical question: When Prophet Muhammad himself did not have the right to make changes to Shariat, how could Muslims allow governments or courts to do so? This is being challenged not just by women determined to fight back against the arbitrary termination of their marriages but also by scholars and other Muslim sects. The Shariat, say scholars from the Shia and Bohra schools of Islam among others, is made up of writings in the Quran and Hadith–which are accounts of the Prophet’s words and actions. 

It does not allow talaq at one go, they say, underlining the need to recognise the multiplicity in customs, practices and jurisprudence in Islam. “The need of the hour is to enact a strict law… that is similar to the anti-sati law to prevent any Muslim woman from getting victimised and ensure that the culprit is punished. In the Shia community, there has never been any place for triple talaq in one go,” said All India Shia Personal Law Board (AISLB) spokesman Maulana Yasoob Abbas. 

In a reference to the aggressive political edge that the issue has acquired, Bohra scholar Irfan Engineer added that triple talaq was un-Islamic but the Centre should not attempt to claim political mileage over the issue. “The issue is directly related to the dignity of Muslim women, but the government should leave it to the Supreme Court and not attempt to get political mileage,” he said. It was purely an issue of male domination, like in any other religion, said Asad Reza, former editor of the Urdu daily Roznama Rashtriya Sahara.

“It has no mention in the Quran and is a direct assault on the dignity of women.” Voices from the Muslim community are eager to make their point in these increasingly polarised times, but their reach remains to be seen. According to rough estimates, Shias constitute about 15 per cent of the 17 crore Muslims in India while there are just five lakh Bohras, a sub-sect. About 85 per cent Muslims are Sunnis, who dominate the AIMPLB. “All personal laws are gender-biased. And it isn’t only about triple talaq.

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The Muslim personal law is problematic in terms of divorce, property rights, inheritance, adoption rights. Our point is that triple talaq is unconstitutional. We are not bothered about whether the Quran sanctions it or not,” said Hasina Khan of the Bebaak Collective, one of the petitioners in the case.

“Our laws have to be gender-just. The court should also look at it from a secular perspective,” said Khan. The triple talaq issue came to the fore in February last year when Shayara Bano, divorced through the practice, petitioned the Supreme Court for a ban on triple talaq, polygamy and nikah halala. Thousands of Muslim women across the country have since formed pressure groups and spearheaded signature campaigns demanding that triple talaq be abolished. 

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According to experts, slam views marriage as a civil contract based on consent, unlike Hinduism, for instance, where it is a sacrament. At the core of the controversy is the dispute over the forms of dissolution of that contract. Under ‘talaq-ul-sunnat’, there has to be a three-month period called ‘iddat’ between the husband pronouncing talaq and lawful separation; ‘talaq-e-bidat’ authorises a man to do so in a single sitting.

Shia scholar Maulana Zaheer Abbas Rizvi spoke in favour of settling the issue amicably without any judicial interference. “To get a divorce, Shias have to go through three sittings with a month’s gap between them. This gives enough chance for reconciliation of the couple. The Sunnis must find a solution which protects the dignity of women.” 

Though there is no separate data on the victims of triple talaq, analysis of the data reveals that the difference between the numbers of female and male divorcees is the highest in the community, suggesting that Muslim men tend to remarry more quickly than women of the community. And amid this talk of gender equality vs patriarchal traditions, Shias vs Sunnis, Sabir and his daughter – and many thousand others – wait for some direction from the highest court in the land.

(All images sourced from PTI)