Entering a forbidden terrain: Women Qazis, ‘Auraton ki Shariah Adalat’, what next?

Why the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan is throwing one challenge after another at the ulema's male-oriented version of 'Islam’

Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) recently announced the formation of Darul Uloom Niswaan [DUN], a centre for Islamic learning and theology for women. As part of this initiative, DUN has begun the training of women qazis.
The initiative began in Jaipur with a group of 30 Muslim women who embarked on this journey. This training is the first in the series of a year-long process which will include learnings on theology, history of Islam, Constitution of India, principles and values of Islam, schools of jurisprudence etc. Further training modules through the year will focus on many other important topics like gender equality in Islam, family laws in different Muslim countries etc.
The need to educate Muslim women to become qazis came from the experience of more than two decades. The most common experience and observation was that the Islamic justice system was biased towards men. All qazis are men and tend to take sides with men and it is the women who suffer the most in case of family disputes or marital discords.
The need was also fueled by the fact that a qazi plays an important role in society. They not only solemnise marriages but also validate divorce. BMMA has observed in its last ten years of work across different states that there is widespread practice of triple talaq and halala in spite of there being no Quranic sanction for either.
Experience suggests that majority of qazis validate unilateral triple divorce. Some qazis play a dubious role in furthering barbaric practices such as halala. BMMA’s two research reports bear testimony to how Muslim women suffer owing to these un-Islamic practices. We feel that more and more women qazis who are trained about Islamic teachings and gender justice principles is the need of the hour. Besides, there is no bar on women qazis as per the Quran. It was felt that women qazis can provide a solution to these ills which afflict our society.
A lot of legal problems faced by Muslim women today can be prevented if the qazi plays his/her role with responsibility. Women qazis trained by DUN will ensure that underage marriages do not take place, a man is not able to take a second wife in the subsistence of the first, the residence proof of the man and his source of income is ascertained before he enters into a marriage contract.
Women qazis will ensure that the mehr amount is received by the bride at the time of nikaah and that both the parties are entering into the marriage alliance out of their free will and not by force or fraud. Even a male qazi can take these preventive measures but which are not being taken resulting in a lot of hardship for the women.
Male qazis approve of oral divorce and in fact often encourage Muslim men to unilaterally divorce their wives. They also approve of muta marriages where young girls are duped into entering temporary alliances. This malaise which has rendered so many Muslim women homeless and destitute will be curbed if women who are trained in Islamic values of gender equality and gender justice become qazis
The idea of DUN was born following such experiences.

The Quranic injunctions and the Indian democratic framework together provide an enabling environment to right the historic wrongs done to women and thereby to the whole community by the patriarchal forces who have appointed themselves sole arbiters of religious knowledge and practice
While the larger problems of legal discrimination and neglect by the state and Muslim community about the legal problems of Muslim women will take a longer time to resolve, the immediate solution is to train women to take the reins in their hands. BMMA is advocating for the codification of the Muslim Personal Law, but in order to have an immediate remedy to the issues, the idea of a woman qazi is more implementable.

It has its own share of challenges and may be opposed by the patriarchal forces who have appointed themselves custodians of Islam just as they oppose the idea of codification of personal law. But the training of women qazis is an easily achievable goal since training of individuals who are willing to practice as qazis is possible.

It is important to have a fair representation of women in religious and legal matters pertaining to family life, marriage, custody of children, property distribution, divorce etc. Looking at the current scenario where men not only have an upper hand in these matters, they have been party to violations of Quranic injunctions pertaining to marriage and divorce by upholding triple talaq and halala. It is time to evolve remedies for these wrongs.

BMMA in 2013 also launched the first of its kind ‘Aurton ki Shariah Adalat’ (Womens’ shariah court) in Mumbai and DIndigul (Tamil Nadu) with the aim of providing legal aid and guidance to women who get no support from the shariah courts run by Muslim men. Since then, every year close to 500 Muslim women have benefitted from these women-led courts. This indicates a dire need for Muslim women to become justice providers.
Again unprecedented in the history of Muslims in India is the formulation of a draft ‘Muslim Family Law’ finalized by BMMA based on the Quranic values of gender justice and the Constitutional values of equality. Lack of codified law for Muslims in India is one of the major reasons for the legal oppression of Muslim women who are orally and unilaterally divorced by their husbands on their own whim and who face consequences of heinous practices like muta, underage marriages and halala.
The Quranic injunctions and the Indian democratic framework together provide an enabling environment to right the historic wrongs done to women and thereby to the whole community by the patriarchal forces who have appointed themselves sole arbiters of religious knowledge and practice. Equipped with a draft of a gender just law, strengthened with a structure like ‘Aurton ki Shariah Adalat’ and facilitating the emergence of women qazis, BMMA has attempted to bring about a structural change in the way the community functions as far as legal issues are concerned.

These efforts are part of the larger wave of Islamic feminism emerging in Islamic/Muslim societies where women are leading in the creation of religious knowledge by reclaiming religious spaces so far controlled and manipulated by men, specifically the clergy. BMMA leaders continuously draw inspiration and support from the writings of Islamic scholars across the world who are interpreting the holy text for upholding gender justice and human rights of all.
DUN is part of the larger feminist movement in the Islamic world initiated by women activists and scholars who have taken upon themselves the task of presenting to the world a humane, just and peaceful face of Islam which today has been usurped by the conservative and dogmatic religious bodies who do not believe in gender equality and human rights.
Muslim women no longer want to be confined as receivers of religious knowledge but also its creators. The need to re-read, re-translate, re-explain and re-interpret the Quran has resulted in a completely different version of Islamic jurisprudence which is not only pro-women but also pro- human rights, liberty, equality and justice for all.
It reaffirms our faith that a better and a more humane Muslim world is about to emerge and Muslim women have been, and will continue to lead this change.

Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Safia Niaz are co-founders, BMMA and co-trustees, DUN.



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