Muslim Women in India Seek Gender Equality in Marriage

New Delhi, India - Three years ago, Salma Khatun’s husband divorced her in a fit of rage after a quarrel, pronouncing what is known as the triple talaq in the presence of witnesses. The triple talaq is a formula of repudiation. The first two times it is pronounced, it can be revoked, but the third time it makes a divorce binding, according to some interpretations of Islamic law.

Although Ms. Khatun’s husband repented the next morning, the head cleric of their mosque in Delhi insisted that the divorce was binding. According to his reading of Islamic law, Ms. Khatun would need to marry another man, consummate the marriage and then divorce before she could remarry her husband.

For more than a decade, Muslim women’s organizations in India have been fighting for changes in the body of Islamic law that governs marriage, divorce and the property rights of women. But as the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board held its annual convention in Mumbai last week, the battle lines had never been so starkly drawn. Although the Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens irrespective of their religion, Muslims are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937. Attempts to apply a common civil code have often been viewed as interference in the practices of India’s largest religious minority.

The Personal Law Board is one of the country’s more influential Muslim groups. Its chiefly male membership of clerics and scholars has rejected proposals to change Muslim personal law, and is opposing a demand by women’s groups that marriages be legally registered, as is mandatory for non-Muslims.

Zeenat Shaukat Ali, a professor of Islamic Studies at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and the author of “Marriage and Divorce in Islam,” is blunt in her assessment of the current situation.

“We are asking for codification of the legal system within the framework of Koranic law,” she said. “The Koran does not support a system that is controlled by the patriarchy, and the government has to treat this matter on a war footing if they truly mean to bring about gender justice.”

The changes that women’s organizations have been discussing for more than a decade — with major meetings held across India over the last three years — include the compulsory registration of marriages with the state, the abolition of the triple talaq on the grounds that violates the Koran and the establishment of a more reliable system of financial support for wives.

“There is no political will to change this law even though we are a secular democratic republic,” said Ms. Ali. “Politicians refuse to move ahead because some males have objected.”

Her view is echoed by several Muslim women’s rights groups. Many of these, like the breakaway All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, which was founded in 2005, have attempted to introduce changes in their own way. In 2008, this group, led by Shaista Amber, proposed a “shariat nikahnama,” or Islamic marriage contract. This called for mandatory marriage registration and proposed more rights to the wife, within the guidelines of Koranic law. The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board dismissed the proposed changes.

Two years later, in 2010, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, an organization of more than 20,000 Muslim women in 15 states across India, staged marches in the streets of Lucknow to support three women who had assaulted Muslim clerics after their husbands had obtained fraudulent divorce decrees by bribery. Now, the B.M.M.A. is urging legislation to address Muslim family life, arguing that “in the absence of codified law, customary practices that have diverged from the values and principles of the Koran have emerged.”

Zakia Soman, a founding member of the B.M.M.A., has spent much of the last three years listening to what Muslim women — and a growing number of Muslim men — have said in support of changing the laws.

“The clerics are ignorant about what the Koran has to say on the subject of women’s lives,” she said. “The Muslim Personal Law Board is not representative of all Muslims. Nobody elected them, and they have very few women in their organization. They don’t consider women equal, which is extremely un-Islamic. God doesn’t distinguish between men and women.

“In our three years of consultation around the country, nowhere have we found any voice saying we don’t need a codified law.”

But the larger argument is not limited to the question of family law, important as that might be. What has been raised often, especially in the past year, is the question of whether male Muslim clerics can speak for Muslim women.

Daud Sharifa Khanum, who founded a women’s empowerment group called Steps in rural Tamil Nadu State in 1991, wrote eloquently of the dissatisfaction many Muslim women felt: “Many women said that they were very unhappy with the way women were treated by community organizations such as the jamaats, the federations attached to mosques. Women’s lives were discussed, problems were addressed, without the women being present.”

In 2001, Steps formed a jamaat for women that has a strong presence today, and says it may even build a women’s mosque. The mosques, Ms. Khanum has argued, were “not really of the people.” Rather, she said, they were “male spaces that discriminated against women.”

“We shouldn’t forget that the Prophet himself was one of the first feminists,” said Ms. Ali, of St. Xavier’s. “We need to settle the legal reform debate. Let the clerics and male scholars come and discuss this, with the women’s activists on the other side.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Khatun’s story had a relatively happy ending. Faced with the prospect of marrying a strange man, Ms. Khatun found an innovative solution to her marital troubles. She took her woes to the head cleric’s wife, who exerted gentle pressure on her husband until he remembered a loophole that allowed him to declare the divorce — which neither Ms. Khatun nor her husband wanted — null and void. But not all Muslim women in similar situations have been this fortunate.

“It was 1,400 years ago that the Koran gave women equal rights,” Ms. Soman said wryly.

“We have waited a very long time for justice in this country.”