By Kouser Fathima
The Supreme Court’s decision to set up a bench to discuss Muslim women’s rights under Muslim personal laws has again brought back the topic of Uniform Civil Code (UCC) into limelight. Right from the beginning, Muslim personal laws were a matter of discontent and the Shah Banoo verdict under the Congress government only added to it. The review of the Supreme Court verdict in favour of Shah Banoo under the pressure from Muslim clergy sent a wrong message that the government bowed in front of one community.
With the changing political atmosphere in the country and especially with the coming of BJP to power, the demand for the UCC has also become louder. The UCC has now become a double-edged sword used to divide the nation. On the one hand, the secular parties use it to spread fear and victimhood among Muslims; on the other, the right-wing parties project it as a tool for minority appeasement and vote bank politics.
Among Muslim personal laws, the laws regarding polygamy and triple talaq are the most contentious ones as both are projected as anti-women.
In regards to polygamy, it should be made clear that Islam only allows the option of polygamy and doesn’t make it compulsory. In verse 4.3, it states, ““If you fear you will not be fair, then only one, or what your right hand possesses.” Further, in verse 4.129, it’s mentioned, “You will not be able to treat all women equally even if you wish to do.” If we take a comprehensive view of these two verses, it is clear that the Quran discourages more than one wife and allows polygamy under strict conditions. One doesn’t have to be polygamous to be a good Muslim.
Similarly, the triple talaq is strongly discouraged in Islam. Mahmud bin Lubayd narrates that the Prophet was once informed that a man had divorced his wife with three pronouncements made all at once. At this the prophet was angry and said, “Is the book of Allah mocked at in my presence?” This proves that the Prophet disapproved of the triple talaq. The triple talaq has further been discouraged by many Islamic scholars and thinkers. Contemporary Arab scholar, Sheikh Jamal al-Din al-Qasim has pronounced that the triple talaq has no validity. Also, after a detailed discussion and debate, the Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc, has concluded that the triple talaq is not valid and will not be counted as one.
Yet we can’t deny the fact that both polygamy and triple talaq are misused by some Muslim men and most get away with it by using the Muslim personal law. This misuse has resulted in spoiling the lives of many Muslim women, especially in the lower economic strata. Abandoned by their husbands and stigmatised by the society, they are left to fend for themselves and their children. Men who are polygamous are usually irresponsible even towards their offspring and they seldom share the financial responsibilities. And when this behaviour is justified using religion, it becomes more difficult for the women to fight for their rights. Many Muslim thinkers and feminists have been speaking against these practices and are trying to garner support against them. Prominent amongst these are the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, Prof. Tahira Mahmood, an internationally recognised expert on shariah law and Prof. Irfan Habib, the renowned historian of medieval India.
The UCC is projected as a remedy but sadly we get to hear about it only during elections. People with scant knowledge of both All India Muslim Personal Law Board and Indian laws are seen endlessly commenting on it. But the truth is UCC is neither properly defined nor has there been any guidelines about it. The controversial statements by politicians and irresponsible coverage by media have only complicated the situation. Feminists, ultra-atheists, and rationalists equate the personal laws with gender discrimination and question the stand of Muslims.
However, when you talk to Muslims, you realise that most Muslims themselves don’t endorse polygamy and triple talaq. But at the same time, UCC is seen by many Muslims as way to curb their freedom and as a way to force the implementation of majoritarian laws. Any change in Muslim personal laws is seen as a direct attack on their religious identity. The Muslim Personal Law Board plays into this fear and strongly rejects any change in the personal law. This attitude is often seen as regressive and strongly criticised by members of the majority community, who calls for disbanding the law board altogether. The Muslim Personal Law Board needs to remember that although our constitution gives all citizens freedom to practice and promote their religion, it also contains Article 21, which states, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” This implies that if any personal law is misused to harm any individual, it becomes void.
The other reason why Muslims are not happy about the UCC is the political overtones as UCC was a major electoral agenda during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The BJP openly promised to implement it, if elected. Now there is a demand from some of its members and allies about its implementation. Hence their sudden sympathy and interest in the condition of Muslim women is seen more as a political manoeuvring and as a conspiracy to harass and trouble Indian Muslims. Muslims also claim that the number of men practicing following polygamy is small and the number of polygamous male is more among other communities (though practiced covertly). No proper and recent data is available; hence no clear picture emerges regarding this. A tainted view of the UCC and suspicion of the intention of the government may be detrimental making Muslims more averse to the idea of a UCC. All the political parties would try to exploit the situation and create a divisive atmosphere.
Muslims need to realise whether we like it or not, the UCC will be a reality in future, if not now. Muslim thinkers, scholars and legal experts need to work in tandem to make the UCC acceptable by all. Fear and lack of proper guidelines about the UCC is a major hindrance. Before the government proceeds further, it will have to define the UCC and prepare a rough framework, which should then be discussed/debated in a healthy manner without instilling fear among Muslims. The UCC is a sensitive issue which should be handled with caution rather than be used as a political tool.
The Uniform Civil Code could finally be inclusive of personal laws without gender discrimination. This might be a little difficult to realize but not impossible.
Dr. Kouser Fathima is a Bangalore-based dentist who writes on issues concerning women, especially Muslim women. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @drkf_18
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