Personal Law Board is against the interests of Muslim women

Hasnath Mansur
is a prominent Muslim woman’s activist from Bangalore. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand she talks about the ongoing debates on Islam and women and on the recent splits in the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Q: Could you tell us something about your background?
A: I was a teacher for several decades and have now retired. I taught at several schools in different places in South India and finally retired as principal of the Abbas Khan Girls’ College, Bangalore, where I served for more than two decades. I was also a member of the Karnataka State Minorities’ Commission. Currently I am associated with several organisations working with women, especially Muslim women, in Karnataka.

Q: What do you feel about the recent splits in the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board?
A: My own view is that the Board has no right to claim to speak for all the 150 million or so Muslims of India. The Board is like an NGO, a self-styled organisation that claims that it is the representative of all Indian Muslims, whereas this is not the case at all. I doubt if even a tenth of the Indian Muslim population even knows about the existence of the Board. It is an elitist organisation, visible in some cities and towns. What do the poor Muslim masses have to do with it? What do women have to do with it? I don’t think the Board has done any good at all for ordinary Muslims.


Q: But as the ulema on the Board would argue, they have at least been able to ‘protect’ Muslim Personal Law, which they see as an integral part of Muslim identity.
A: I beg to differ. If the Board did not exist, Muslims would have devised other ways of resisting the imposition of a Uniform Civil Code. And furthermore, I do not think that the personal law that the Board so ardently defends is fully ‘Islamic’. Take the case of the standard nikahnama (marriage contract) that, after decades of pressure by women’s groups, the Board is now talking about. It does not mention a woman’s Islamic right to have her marriage dissolved through khula, and it also does not ban the obnoxious practice of triple talaq in one sitting, which is a completely ‘un-Islamic’ practice. So how can you argue that the Board is actually defending the Shari’ah at least as far as that term is understood in the Koran? So, I would go so far as to say that rather than doing anything positive for the community, the Board has been working against its interests, the interests of half of the community, the interests of Muslim women.

Tell me, what moral right do I have to tell my Hindu friends that Islam provides equality to women? They are bound to retort that if a religion allows for a woman to be instantly divorced at the mere whim of her husband it certainly cannot be said to be gender-just! How can you expect someone to be a good Muslim if you tell her that her religion allegedly says that her husband can divorce her simply by uttering a word three times at one go?


Q: According to you, then, the practice of triple talaq in one sitting is ‘un-Islamic’. Can you elaborate?
A: See, for me Islam is a religion of justice and mercy. God is described in the Koran as ‘The Merciful’, and Muslims are exhorted to practice justice. Now, how on earth, you tell me, can a man who divorces his wife simply by uttering the world talaq three times in one sitting be considered to be just and merciful? Isn’t this practice simply tyrannical? How can one justify such tyranny when Islam tells us that it is opposed to tyranny? How can a man divorce a woman just whenever he wants by uttering three words in one go when marriage in Islam is supposed to be a contract between two equal partners? When triple talaq in one sitting is not mentioned in the Koran, and when the Prophet himself is said to have condemned the practice, then how and why is it that the Board simply refuses to do away with it?


Q: The ulema who support the practice of triple talaq in one sitting argue that they are following the practice of Umar, the second Sunni Caliph, who apparently allowed for it. How do you see this argument?
A: I challenge the ulema to prove that this practice is Koranic. I insist that it is totally un-Koranic and, therefore, wrong. Now, Muslims are required to follow only the Koran, without adding anything to it, and so no matter what Hazrat Umar or anyone else may have said or done, we are not bound to follow them if it is not in accordance with the Koran. If Hazrat Umar decided on allowing for triple talaq in one sitting, that was his own personal decision or ijithad, and we today are not bound by it but, instead, by the Koran. He must have made this decision in response to the conditions prevailing in Arab society in his time. Hence, it may have been suitable for that particular historical context, but surely it is not applicable today, when all that results from it is untold misery for the woman. Even if the man does not pronounce talaq three times in one sitting the threat that he might do so constantly haunts many women.

In Hazrat Umar’s time the divorced woman could easily remarry, as there was no stigma attached to that. If she did not marry she would be maintained by the State through the public treasury, the bait ul-mal. But today, in India, a terrible stigma is attached to a divorced woman, who finds it next to impossible to remarry. This stigma cuts across religious boundaries. And there is no statutory bait ul-mal system here, so obviously the divorced woman in India today is not the same as the divorced woman in Hazrat Umar’s time, so it is wrong to apply Hazrat Umar’s ijithad to our context. That is why I believe we need to go back to what the Koran says, and practice talaq in the manner approved of by the Koran.


Q: If the practice of triple talaq in one sitting is not Koranic, or not even ‘Islamic’, as you insist, how do you account for the deep-rooted patriarchal tradition of fiqh or jurisprudence that the traditionalist ulema so passionately defend, as for instance, in their defence of the practice of triple talaq in one sitting?
A: See, I am a practicing Muslim, and I learnt my Islam from my parents, who were devout Muslims themselves. I come from a family that has produced several well known Sufis. And my reading of the Koran tells me that there is no intermediary between the individual believer and God. I can understand the Koran myself, and I don’t need anyone else, no maulana-mullah, to tell me what the Koran says.

Now, the maulvis will say, no, you cannot understand Islam yourself. You have to take the help of the maulvis. You have to study numerous books of Hadith and fiqh and commentaries and super-commentaries on these written by the ulema. I vehemently disagree. The Koran is addressed to everybody, which means that everyone has a right to read it and interpret it according to her own understanding. Islam is meant to be a simple religion, meant for all. If it is so simple, then where is the need for a special class of mullahs and of all these books other than the Koran in order to understand what Islam is all about?

As I see it, this argument that you cannot understand Islam on your own, but that you have to follow what the mullahs say, is simply a means to bolster the authority, power and privileges of those who claim to be ulema. All you need to understand the Koran properly is piety and sincere intention. You don’t need to be a big scholar, to have written or read many books, to understand it.

Now, to come back to the point I was making, this notion that to understand the Koran you have to take the help of Hadith and fiqh is, for me at least, very problematical. The books of Hadith and fiqh were written much after the death of the Prophet. As many mullahs themselves will agree, there are many so-called Hadith reports that are simply concocted to denigrate and subordinate women. So, you have this so-called Hadith that says that the majority of the denizens of hell will be women. Or another one which says that if God had decreed that a human being should prostrate before someone other than Him, He would have ordained women to prostrate before their husbands!

Now, as a believing Muslim woman I ask, how could the Prophet, the very embodiment of mercy and love, have ever made such statements? These have been wrongly attributed to him by some writers who claim to have been great ulema. Likewise, the tradition of fiqh, which the mullahs claim represents the divine Shari’ah, is replete with misogynist statements and rules that are a complete contradiction of the egalitarian message of the Koran. That is why I say we need to follow only the Koran and nothing else.

The Koran itself tells us that it alone is sufficient for our guidance. The Prophet told his followers to follow only the Koran. If the Koran alone suffices for Muslims as the book of guidance for Muslims, then why do the mullahs insist on following other books for guidance or supplementing the Koran with other books and with human beings who claim to be ‘authorities’? By doing so, aren’t we marginalising the Koran? So, I insist, we don’t need to follow concocted so-called Hadith, fiqh or the mullahs who claim to represent Islam.


Q: To come back to the issue of the All-India Muslim Personal Board, do you feel that the inclusion of some women in the Board has made much of a difference? Do you think that the recent splits in the Board, including the setting up of two boards by some Sunni and Shia women, would make a major difference?
A: Personally, I am opposed to sectarianism, and I don’t see why Shia and Sunni women should form separate boards, especially since I believe that the differences between the two sects are relatively minor, and both agree on the cardinal teachings of Islam. I do not think the setting up of parallel boards would make much of a difference from the point of view of women. I say this on the basis of my own association with several women as well as men who are members of the Board. The women on the Board have little or no say in its decisions. Some of them are simply too scared to speak out against patently patriarchal biases of many men on the Board. They fear that if they do they might be accused of dividing the community or challenging the authority of the mullahs on the Board, who claim to have a monopoly of speaking for Islam. I really wonder what those women on the Board are there for. Why didn’t they protest when the nikahnama was being discussed, when leading lights of the Board denied women their Koranic right of khula and allowed for the un-Koranic, or should I say anti-Koranic, practice of triple talaq in one sitting?

The setting up of a separate women’s Muslim Personal Law board appears a positive thing, but it is too early to say if this would lead to any substantial change for Muslim women from the working class or for rural Muslim women. As for the new boards that have been set up by some male ulema, I do not see them as much more progressive, from the point of view of women, than the existing All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. However, the Shia ulema are said to be against the practice of triple talaq in one sitting, and that is, of course, a good thing. But I don’t think these new boards, in addition to the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, are going to do anything major for women. My own personal view is that they are simply too scared of women speaking out or taking over.

Many Muslim men see themselves as insecure, perhaps because of Muslims being in a minority in India, perhaps because of social and economic marginalisation, the rise of Hindutva fascism and repeated riots directed against the Muslims. So, since they feel insecure in the public sphere they want to compensate for it by stressing their authority in the private sphere, in the family, by controlling their women.


Q: You seem to be arguing that there is little hope for the Board to seriously address the issue of Muslim women’s legal problems because of what you see as the patriarchal fiqh that the traditionalist ulema defend instead of what you see as Koranic fiqh. How, then, do you react to the announcement of the Board that it will seek to promote awareness against the ‘misuse’ of triple talaq in one sitting through what it calls a community-wide islah-i mashra (social reform) movement?
A: This is all hogwash. I again insist that we should follow the Koran and what it says. Is the Board ready to lay that down and, through this islah-i mashra movement, convey this message to the Muslim public? Is it willing to declare, through this movement, that only the Koranic method of talaq, and no other method, including triple talaq in one sitting, is acceptable? Is it willing to declare that Muslim women, too, have the right to have their marriages dissolved through khula?

If the mullahs are true to Islam they must convey, through this islah-i mashra venture, that only the Koranic method should be followed. But that is not what the Board is doing! They recognise that triple talaq in one sitting is a ‘wrongful innovation’ (bidat), and they even recite a Hadith which says that every bidat is a crime (zalalat), which leads to Hell. But at the same time they say that this bidat of triple talaq in one sitting must not be abolished! They say it is a ‘sinful’ practice but they also legitimise it in the name of ‘Islam’. How ridiculous! As a practicing Muslim, I ask, if something is recognised as sinful how can it be said to be an integral part of Islam? How can someone, no matter how big an Islamic scholar he claims to be, argue that his views should prevail over the Koran?

So, this islah-i mashra thing is really not going to make much of a difference. Men are not going to stop resorting to triple talaq in one sitting simply because a mullah tells them that it is sinful, because, simultaneously, the mullah tells them that it is also allowed! The Board has been talking about launching this islah-i mashra movement for years now but has done next to nothing about it at the grassroots.


Q: If you don’t see the Board as giving Muslim women their rights, what option do you think Muslim women have?
A: If the Board continues to deny Muslim women their rights they will have no option but to resort to the secular courts, which have the prerogative to administer Muslim Personal Law. This, of course, should not be construed as support for the imposition of a Uniform Civil Code. I am as opposed to that as I am to the claims of the mullahs. Recently, some judgements by the courts have been very favourable to women, based on the judges’ own interpretations of Muslim Personal Law. The traditionalist mullahs, of course, can be expected to be quite opposed to these interpretations. They would argue that non-Muslim judges have no right to interpret the Koran. That is why they are now demanding that Muslims should set up their own family courts or dar ul-qazas, where family disputes can be decided by Muslim qazis. Given the fact that these qazis have been reared in a fiercely patriarchal tradition of medieval fiqh, as distinct from Koranic fiqh, I think this would not help women at all, and might be very counterproductive from their point of view.

I am totally opposed to these dar ul-qazas. I have my serious doubts about the men who man these institutions. I fear that the patriarchal interpretations of Islam that they follow will not allow them to provide justice to women. The setting up of these dar ul-qazas is of no use unless there is a radical change in the mindset of the mullahs and qazis. For this, as I keep stressing, we need to salvage the Koran from centuries of tradition that has obscured it. But I don’t know if the so-called ulema would welcome that, because their claims to authority rest on their claims of having ‘expert’ knowledge of books and subjects other than just the Koran alone.

Archived from Communalism Combat, February  2005 Year 11    No.105, Gender Justice 1




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