Does Islam treat women fairly when it comes to marriage and divorce? Islam does unequivocally, but men do not. The Supreme Court on August 22, 2017, in theory, brought relief to harried Muslim women by declaring instant triple talaq invalid through a 3-2 split verdict. Justice Kurian Joseph, whose vote proved decisive in setting aside instant triple talaq, came up with a memorable statement: “What is held to be bad in the Holy Quran cannot be good in Shariat and, in that sense, what is bad in theology is bad in law as well…Merely because a practice has continued for long, that by itself cannot make it valid if it has been expressly declared to be impermissible.” The seven Muslim women petitioning the SC had wanted multiple pronouncements of divorce at the same time declared illegal in consonance with the laws in almost 20 Muslim countries.
Many—mainly non-Muslims in India—argue that this judgment is not enough and believe the time is ripe for hammering out a Uniform Civil Code for all Indians. What is important in this context that different religions have different laws for marriage and, consequently, for divorce.
For example, in Christianity, theology does not permit a divorce and a divorce is granted only by a civil court. There, too, a Christian couple has to wait for a mandatory two-year waiting period to get separated even with mutual consent. In that sense, Islam is a truly liberating religion for in any type of divorce, the Muslim man and woman have to wait only a maximum of 90 days to go their own separate ways.
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) married 11 times and he definitely knew about the difficulties of marriage, unlike Jesus Christ. So Islam makes it easy for men and women to go their own ways but how strange then is the practice of Muslim men to get their divorce in three seconds! Of course, they are in a hurry.
But the important point is that there are enough defenders for instant triple talaq, (crucially, Shia Muslims in India are not following instant triple talaq) including the then Chief Justice of India J S Kehar, who argued in August 2017 that instant triple talaq is a practice in vogue for 1400 years although the Quran does not sanctify it.
In this context, senior journalist Ziya Us Salam has done a great job in clearing the muddy waters around the Muslim marriage and divorce in his cogently reasoned Till Talaq Do Us Part: Understanding Talaq, Triple Talaq and Khula (Published by Penguin Books, Pages 218, Rs 399). This is a must-read for our times.
Apart from giving the low down on the varieties of divorces in Islam, including that of Khula which empowers a Muslim woman to divorce her husband without assigning any reason whatsoever, Ziya Us Salam makes a few very significant points in Till Talaq Do Us Part. He says the Supreme Court judgment is unlikely to have any impact at the ground level. “The Supreme Court judges pronounced their decision in New Delhi, but in the small towns and villages of India, social norms are often paramount, all law subservient to them. That explains why both dowry and the caste system continue to prevail despite strictures against both.”
And Ziya also draws our attention to the fact that five out of the seven petitioners did not get their key demand. The SC had not said a direct word about the marital status of them, and that despite the court ruling, it might not be easy to set aside instant talaq in real life.
All laws relating to marriage and divorce in every religion are there to ensure justice for women from the caprices of men. But unless the woman becomes economically independent these laws would hardly serve her any purpose. The key remains that Muslim women, especially Indian Muslim women, should have the tools to negotiate modernity, by getting educated, and, thereby, earning a degree in independent thought. Without that Khula and other egalitarian provisions in the Quran will not save them.
Ziya highlights the challenges that Muslim women in India are facing by pointing out that they are excluded from most of the mosques in the country despite the Prophet making provisions for their prayers. Ziya says mosques are reduced to a male domain. “Women, if they do enter, are considered aliens, another species, who have perchance entered the wrong place,” writes Ziya. He says maulanas are ill-equipped to interpret and explain the Quran and tell the followers what is right and wrong.
One cannot agree more when Ziya says that until the ignorance of women’s rights is dispelled, the Supreme Court order or even a legislation will be adhered to more as the exception than the norm. Like the ban on the caste system, like the prohibition on dowry, the latest court order and a piece of legislation on setting aside instant triple talaq and imprisoning the husband will need social support for it to be effective. Yes, Islam is in danger in India but it largely stems from within and the way forward, as Ziya says, lies in a better understanding of the Quran.