Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Oppressive personal laws aren’t the only thing standing between Muslim women and happy lives

The nation cannot swoop in to save the Muslim woman while Muslim communities are simultaneously being brought to their knees.

I am glad it is over. I refer to talaq-e-bidat, the practice of Muslim men uttering talaq, talaq, talaq in a single setting to instantly divorce their wives, which rightfully belonged in a trash can, but also to the television nation’s delirious excitement at having “saved Muslim women”.

Rarely, in recent times, has any government or party, from the prime minister down, been so visibly stirred at the impending empowerment of a vulnerable minority.

The Bharatiya Janata Party Twitter cell is twittering delight at the end of “this evil practice… thanks to the persistent and firm stand taken by PM Modi”. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath has hailed the “historic move”. The prime minister himself tweeted that the judgement “grants equality to Muslim women…a powerful measure for women empowerment”.

Well, congratulations gentlemen, but your task begins now. Because we are where we need to be within the framework of the Constitution. This chiefly is what Muslim women’s rights groups are celebrating. As they should.
If gender empowerment is what the nation was truly seeking, then the judgement is less historic than the hype. The question is how one frames gender equality, gender equity and gender justice – three phrases invoked repeatedly in the Supreme Court’s verdict on Tuesday.

The media-led and politics-driven narrative of Muslim women’s rights in India has long ceased to be framed by the Constitution. The dominant frame has been personal law.

It is through the personal tragedies of a series of Muslim women – Gudiya, Imrana and their more famous predecessor Shah Bano, a 62-year-old divorced Muslim mother of five who won a landmark battle for alimony in 1985 only to see the Rajiv Gandhi government pass a law to overturn it, that an entire community has been constructed in the national imagination. Shayara Bano , a petitioner in the triple talaq case, now joins this list.

Gudiya was a Muslim woman whose Armyman husband went missing during the Kargil war in 1999 and was given up for dead after which she remarried. However, her first husband, who had been kept a prisoner in Pakistan, returned in 2004 when Gudiya was pregnant with her second husband’s child. The village panchayat then ruled that she had to return to her first husband. This case was highlighted prominently in the media. Gudiya died of septicaemia in 2006. Imrana’s case also generated an enormous amount of publicity in the media. Her father in-law raped her in 2005, prompting the community panchayat to direct her to treat her husband as a son.

Muslim women in India are somehow seen to be more in the thrall of religious practices than women of any other community; more debilitated by their religion and more in need of rescue than women of any other community. Lila Abu-Lughod’s book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, a critique of the Western political impulse to swoop down and rescue the homogenously constructed Muslim woman from her (diverse) cultures, is instructive.

Defined by religion
The deprivation experienced by Indian Muslims was acknowledged in the Sachar Report of 2006. But much as the poor are blamed for their own poverty (they are illiterate and have too many children), Muslims in classic perversion were apparently victims largely of their own making; victimised by an archaic religion. Question: Why do Muslims have low literacy? Answer: Islam, shariat, medieval mindsets. So Muslims cavorted around in a national burlesque, bearing familiar, evil tropes (mullahs, burqas, beards, fatwas) and yes, the tragedy tropes – the lives of Muslim women.

To the exclusion of every other aspect of life such as income, jobs, education, caloric intake, sense of security, and freedom from the lynch mob, the Indian Muslim’s empowerment horizon seems to start and end at the rules of marriage and right to divorce. Never mind that Muslim women too need the right to life, security, jobs, education and sufficient caloric intake, in addition to liberation from talaq-e-bidat.

Access to justice when faced with violence, and equal rights to development such as education, housing, employment and expansion of choices – both visibly absent today – affect Muslim women’s lives in terrible ways. The existence of one (violence) and failure of State redress, severely compromises their ability to access the other (development, personal freedom). And it is the collapsing promise of the Indian State, and its rapidly shrinking role in the life of the Muslim citizen that bears large blame for the expansion of a patriarchal clergy in community spaces.

Long road ahead
So, is personal law a valid site for intervention towards gender justice for Muslim women? Yes. But neither is it the sole nor most important one. Just a step on a road.

The celebrations in the air seem to disingenuously suggest that oppressive personal laws were the only thing standing between Muslim women and happy lives. Rubbish. Sixty-one years of a reformed and codified Hindu personal law has not exactly made Hindu women the poster girls of empowerment. Though the intent is noble, the nation cannot swoop in to save the Muslim woman, while Muslim communities are simultaneously being brought to their knees. The Constitution is not a playbook from which you cherry-pick. That is what we really need to be tweeting about today.

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