Last year, a 35-year-old woman from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh received an unusual letter from her husband. He accused her of stealing jewelry and money, and of asking him to live with her relatives instead of his own. This is why, he wrote, he didn’t want to “keep” his wife of 13 years.
The letter closed with a single sentence, repeated three times: “I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you.”
Shayara Bano is among the countless Muslim women in India who have been abandoned by their husbands, often without any notice, through Talaq-ul-Bidat, or “triple talaq.” Permitted under Muslim family law, the practice allows a married man to instantaneously divorce his wife.
However, Bano set herself apart from many victims by suing her husband in India’s Supreme Court. (A person can go directly to the Supreme Court in India when they are seeking enforcement of a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution — in this case, the right to equality.)
After declaring the divorce, Bano's husband gave her roughly $225 to refund her bride price. He hasn’t allowed her to see their two children.
“Men have all the power to play with women’s lives, even though the Quran doesn’t endorse it,” she said.
Change has been hard for many women in Bano’s position to imagine, but finally, there may be a reason to hope for it. In an unprecedented move on Friday, India's central government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court opposing triple talaq, a practice it has until now protected.
“It is noteworthy that even theocratic states have undergone reforms in this area of the law and therefore in a secular republic like India, there is no reason to deny women the right available under the constitution,” the statement read.
At least 22 Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, have stopped recognizing triple talaq. But it continues in India, where Hinduism dominates, and Muslim family law exists to safeguard the minority community’s religious freedom.
Many of India’s Muslim clerics insist that because of this law, the Indian judiciary has no right to interpret their religious texts.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a powerful organization that dictates family law, filed a 69-page affidavit in September countering Bano’s case.
“A husband who does not fear God may do anything against his wife whom he hates, for only he is with her in the darkness of night,” the affidavit read, explaining that the expensive and time-consuming nature of court divorces could be discouraging to men. It went on to describe what could happen under these circumstances: “In such instances, he may resort to illegal, criminal ways of murdering or burning her alive.”
The board suggested that if Muslim women are also granted the right to initiate divorce, there will be too much of it. “As a result of gender parity and securing divorce through court alone, the divorce rate has shot up in the West,” it said.
Despite the power the board wields, advocate Farah Faiz argues that their opinion has no legal or religious standing.
“All disputes regarding personal matters like divorce, [alimony] and marriage are supposed to be governed by Sharia, but nobody knows what that is,” she said.
In fact, Faiz explains, the Quran’s teachings on triple talaq require months of reconciliation attempts before the marriage can be dissolved.
But these days religious leaders don’t adhere to that guidance.
“Mullahs say that if you say talaq thrice, the separation is immediate,” said Faiz. “They say the woman has to leave the house, and then they misbehave about [alimony].”
For close to two decades, Faiz has worked with Muslim families in poor communities where she has seen many women abandoned by their husbands through triple talaq. She petitioned the Supreme Court to ban the practice. Her filing has been bundled with others, including Bano’s, to be heard together by the Supreme Court.
Faiz says exposing the misinterpretations of ultra-conservative clerics and reducing the community’s dependence on them will be crucial to improving the rights of Muslim women in India.
“Our women are trapped in cages with their men guarding the gates, and the maulvis [Muslim scholars] stand ahead of the men,” she said. “This is why people cannot openly support me, but I hope our struggle will expose these clerics.”
More Muslim women are speaking out, however, joining Bano in the fight for equal rights within a marriage.
In April 2015, Ishrat Jahan was unceremoniously divorced over the phone. Her husband called her from Dubai, repeated “I divorce you” three times, and hung up. They had been married for 15 years — since Jahan was just 14 years old — and have four children, whom Jahan is not allowed to see.
This year, 30-year-old Jahan approached the Supreme Court.
“I want my children, I want [alimony], and I want my home that my parents paid for,” she said in a television interview. “I want justice because divorce over the phone doesn’t exist.”
Afreen Rehman was divorced with even more indifference. Her husband express-mailed the 25-year-old a letter informing her the marriage was over. They had found each other through a popular online matrimonial service and were married for less than two years.
Petitions from both of these women are included in the case before the Supreme Court.
However, their opponents are a considerable force.
“Though I have hopes with the Supreme Court, I fear things won’t change because the Muslim Board is adamant,” said Bano. “They don’t want men to lose power.”
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