This post does not seek to insult or question anyone’s religious beliefs. In true spirit of freedom of speech, it attempts to address an important issue objectively and analytically. I, myself, have profound respect for people’s faith in God and their willingness to dedicate their lives to religious honesty and truth
Sometime in early 2005, the Indian media was agog with a news item that has stayed with me ever since. It was about Imrana, a 28-year-old Muslim mother of five, from the small town of Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. She was held at gunpoint and raped by her father-in-law. Soon after this, the panchayat (village council) of her community passed the verdict that her marriage to her husband was illegal since she had sexual relations with his father. She should, therefore, cease to live with her husband. This point-of-view was backed by the Darul Uloom of Deoband, a school of Islamic instruction and further reinforced by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. Imrana’s husband’s family chose not to violate the fatwa. Political parties, and all other organizations and commissions, refused to take a stand so as not to offend the Muslim clerics and hence, endanger their minority vote count. What has happened to Imrana ever since? We don’t know. No one has cared to check.
A recent news item brought back memories of this tormented woman and so many of her kind. The All India Shia Convention has come out with an edict that makes marriage a legal contract and enforceable in a court of law. As claimed by the clerics, this will help the women of the Shia Muslim sect fight injustice and torture, dowry demands and other forms of harassment. So, finally, Muslim women get to stand up against their mistreatment and claim divorce and subsequent alimony in a court of law like the other women of the country.
With this, the question that has troubled me and many other minds has been brought to the forefront once again – why should all people not follow the laws laid down by the Constitution? India was formed on the virtue of a secular democracy. Elections and equal treatment of all people have been the principles of its functioning ever since independence. Though numerous incidents of racism and the negative impact of democracy can be cited against this, we cannot deny that there does run an undercurrent of these principles in the Indian mind. So, logically speaking, people of every religion who have chosen to be part of this independent sovereign secular democratic India, should follow what is the most holy document of our nation – the Indian Constitution. All people should, in principle, agree to subject themselves to the laws stated in this document. Holding on to the reigns of one’s social laws based on one’s religion amounts to violating the principle on which our country was founded.
There have been arguments and counter-arguments as to whether asking Muslims to follow the social laws laid down in the Constitution is a curb on religious freedom (which is also one of India’s basic principles). Let me quote a Shia leader after the new edict was announced. He said – “Certain rights have been provided to women, which existed in Islam for the last 1,400 years, but not properly presented”. To my reasoning powers, this is a most blasphemous statement. So can I take it that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board is still unaware of several other such Islamic tenets that have not been adequately presented? Can someone ask them to come up with a list of such tenets that have not been implemented to deliver justice to the suffering masses? If it took 60 years after independence for the All India Shia Personal Law Board to properly present a small side of Islam, can such a body be trusted anymore with knowing its religion well and making sure it is kept alive in a Muslim’s day-to-day life? Is this not a classic case of relegating the empowerment of women to the background for decades in order to maintain male hegemony in Muslim society? Most importantly, can Muslims themselves look up to such a body to pass judgments on their actions and doings?
What I have expressed above is what occurs in a logical line of reasoning. However, governing a country and its people with laws is a colossal task, and India is a live example. Laws stated in the Constitution and enforced by courts of law are not always followed. In response to my questions above, questions such as the following would be asked – have Hindu or Christian women not been tortured in spite of the Constitution safeguarding them? Does every non-Muslim woman in India have the courage to turn against her husband and book him for harassment and ill-treatment?
I agree that the problem is more social than legal. The ideal solution is a general upliftment of our womenfolk, their economic independence and self-sufficiency being the only mechanism to instill respect for them in society and to do away with the age-old taboos. In spite of laws preventing them, Hindu celebrities such as MGR, Karunanidhi, Dharmendra, Boney Kapoor and others openly flaunt two (or more) wives.
But though I see the rampant violation of the Constitution, I also see the torch of progress that it has lit. Over six decades of independence, India has moved forward in leaps and bounds. As much as I criticize its flaws, with every visit to the country, I eat my own words and have to admit that things have gotten better. Talking of women, Indian women today stand on a pedestal which was unbelievable even 10 years ago. Be it the professionals living and working all over the world, be it the small-town girl coming to the city to work in a call-centre and earn her own money, be it the middle-aged woman who is a clerk and a housewife at the same time, Indian women are crossing the meaningless social boundaries and creating a place for themselves in society. In this search for a dignified life, it is important for them to know that they can seek legal help for social causes. Hypothetically, if today one woman among twenty goes to court to fight her case, tomorrow it will be two and who knows, five years later, it may be all twenty of them! Also, the more women fight for their causes, the lesser will be the crimes against them.
In this perspective, do we still need a body of clerics to issue ridiculous fatwas and keep the underdeveloped class of Muslim women out of legal bounds? The Uniform Civil Code (and I don’t mean the one suggested by the BJP; what I mean is the Constitution) is the answer to this. No matter how many laws are broken in India, no one can say India is a lawless state in a condition of anarchy. It has kept its sanity for 60 years now. And in this sanity we will have to install our faith. With this sanity, we will have to save Imrana and her lot.