Windows of opportunity

At the meeting of the All-India Muslim Personal Board last month, the women and the maulanas discovered that they are on the same side 

Mujhe sehl ho gaieen manzilein/voh hava ke rukh bhi badal gaye
(My journey has eased/ direction of winds have changed). Lines from Majrooh Sultanpuri

For the first time, exactly a month ago, Muslim women were invited by the All  India Muslim Personal Law  Board (MPLB) to a conference on the ‘Genuine Problems of Muslim Women and their Solutions’. The venue was the engineering faculty of Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Tension between the MPLB and various women’s groups had been brewing for a few years. This was reflected from time to time in press statements by both parties on various issues pertaining to Muslim women. Members of the MPLB were always seen by women as the orthodox face of Islam who would never permit women to own their own patch of sunlight.

Dr. Hasina Hashia, who coordinated the event on behalf of the MPLB, is one of its fifteen women members. The rest of the hundred and forty members are male. Among the audience there were women from all over the country, representing more than 40 NGOs. The hall began to fill; there were a few women in hijab, most of them were not. Half a dozen women members of the MPLB were also present. Women and men sat sharply divided, on either side of the aisle; the same division was evident on the stage. Interesting that the ‘women’s section’ was bang in front of the stage while the ‘men’s section’ was closer to the hall, but on the stage the setting was reversed. The men squarely occupied  centre–stage while the women were squeezed into the far corner. 

For me this was a much awaited and longed–for moment. As member of the National Commission for Women, I had toured the length and breadth of the country, holding Public Hearings with Muslim women in the gullies and mohallas of districts and tehsils. The findings of this survey had been published as a report on the status of Muslim women entitled Voice of the Voiceless. Having actually captured their voices as they deposed before us, there were some conclusions and recommendations which we addressed first and foremost to the Muslim Personal Law Board, then to all levels of government and finally to  civil society. This conference was the first time that the very members of the Board who we had so far only addressed through the print media, had actually sat down to listen to us.

Some ground rules were laid at the very outset by Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi, chairman of the MPLB. First, that this meeting was not about codification of Muslim law, second, that this meeting was not to ban triple talaaq, and third, that this meeting was not to approve the standard Nikahnama. Two other expectations were placed on the table; first, that this was not a time for mahaaz aarai (confrontation) and second, that it was not a case of ‘who wins, who loses’ but a case of finding solutions to problems. 

Within this framework, discussions had to be held and some consensus hammered out in the next two days. Women were not fariq(opponents) they were rafiq (friends) and all problems had to be solved in the light of shariat because shariat gives women adl (justice) as well as masaavaat (equality).

The next two days were structured around sessions at which women presented the issues pertaining to nikaah, mehr, dowry, inheritance, talaaq, khula and maintenance. After each session one male member of the MPLB offered response on behalf of the Board. At the end there was an open session in the form of a Public Hearing. The conference ended with a declaration which delineated the future course of action for all parties.

What is the net result of this endeavour? This question has been raised often in the last month by different parties. Some have made public statements that it has added up to a big zero because the MPLB has ‘given’ nothing to the women. No improvement has been promised on the matter of triple talaaq or standard nikaahnama or codification of Muslim law. The feeling among some women’s groups is that they have once again been short–changed by the Board. These feelings were expressed on the floor of the conference as well as in media interviews which followed. Some groups, however, felt that there was a major breakthrough in the deadlock, a breakthrough which needs to be welcomed and put to work. On April 7 and 8, 2001 history was made by a courageous contingent of Muslim women and top ranking ulema from all over the country.

Let it be said for both sides that it is quite easy to be disgruntled and show annoyance. It takes much more to understand the other’s difficulty and help him/her overcome it. During the conference, some ulema showed very little empathy for the women who had travelled long distances to air their problems and demand solutions. Some women showed no understanding for the genuine problems of the maulanas who had taken considerable risk in calling this meeting. These hard-line postures were evident in various incidents which erupted throughout the two days.

About one thing let us be clear. It was not easy for the MPLB to have called this meeting. All shades and degrees had to be convinced before the conference was announced. But having once opened the road to dialogue there is absolutely no going back. The very fact that we all sat together for two days made the unspoken tension between women and the ulema disappear to an extent. 

As Hasina Khan of Awaaz–i-Niswan said to the media, “we felt we could talk to them even on a personal level”. Or Hasanath Mansoor of FEMWOB Bangalore who said, “The atmosphere of suspicion has reduced to some extent”. At the end of the day it was felt that strident and belligerent postures taken by either side serve no practical purpose. They best suit the political parties and not people who are genuinely concerned about solving problems. 

The women and the maulanas also discovered that they are on the same side of the issue. At the meeting they agreed that it was the ‘evils of its practice’ that were giving Islam an anti-woman image in the eyes of the world. It was this ‘evil’ which had to be killed at its root. Every one agreed that Islam was the first religion that enjoined gender equality. Surah after surah was quoted by the maulanas and the women, that spoke of women and men as equal partners. It was reiterated by all that Islam gave women property rights at a time when the girl child was killed at birth for fear of public censure. If the shariah had been properly understood and practised Islam would have been hailed by women’s groups all over the world as the ideal religion for gender rights. 

Then came the declaration.
The crux of the declaration is that there is urgent need to create awareness among Muslims on the issue. Small workshops are to be held in all parts of the country where, with the help of imams and ulema, people would be educated about their rights and duties; especially those pertaining to marriage. A concerted endeavour is to be made to eradicate the frequent and irresponsible exercise of the right to divorce which brings distress all around. Special restraint on divorce is enjoined, which would mean that people will be encouraged to seek ‘advice and intervention’ of ulema, imams and community panchayats to determine if there is a genuine need for talaaq. The practice of dowry has been declared un-Islamic by the ulema; this edict has to be strictly enforced. 

Public opinion has to be mobilised to eradicate evils like non-payment of mehr and contracting second marriages without doing justice to the first. Strictures were also placed on the ‘unhelpful’ role of a ‘number of women’ in matters of dowry demands. Finally, there was a plea to the government of India for the establishment of Darul Qaza (Islamic judicial panchayats) as well as shariah benches within the Family Court system.

With the exception of the demand for Darul Qaza, the points in the declaration attempt to cover the issues which have been most contentious for Muslim women since the Shah Bano agitation. So far as Darul Qaza is concerned, let it be understood that establishment of a parallel judiciary is not the answer. Problems of pendency plague the entire judicial system causing untold hardships, particularly to women. And who can guarantee the efficacy of Darul Qazas, the quality of the presiding judges, the efficiency of proceedings? Ulema themselves understand this conundrum; therefore it is surprising that time and again they continue to raise this issue. But so far as the other aspects of personal law that cause Muslim women untold suffering, the MPLB has tried to address them in this declaration. The maulanas have listened and reacted. The fact remains that they could have done much more. But they have chosen to tread the path with utmost care; perhaps because they wanted to keep all the factions together.

Let women’s groups try to understand the ulema’s difficulty and with practical wisdom keep chipping away until the citadel breaks down to let the winds of change blow through. It is a fact that the maulanas have the pulpit and millions of the ummah listen, weekly, to their Jumma Khutbas. When it comes to Muslim masses, it is mostly they who can bring in the desired change. Laws have never been able to change whole scale mindsets; else we would by now have eradicated child marriage and female foeticide. Maulanas are equally chagrined at the distorted image Islam is getting all over the world. In short, they need us as much as we need them. So, let us join together, let this conference go down in history as the turning point for Muslim women. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2001 Year 8  No. 69, Cover Story 4




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