Till Talaq Do Us Part

 
Although in comparison to the pre-Islamic societies Islam accorded rights to women and articulated duties of men, the framework remained largely patriarchal, and talaq, a male prerogative. A woman has to demand separation and her husband can grant it or refuse it. Even when a woman does not ask for or desire divorce the man can still ‘bestow’ it upon her. Islamic provisions that can ensure better treatment of women are ignored and even seem alien to the average South Asian Muslims.   
 
It is not a secret that there is much majoriatarian aggression on the issue of talaq in India. It is sometimes difficult to differentiate Islamophobia of liberals who are concerned about the welfare of Muslim women, from the Islamophobia of Hindutva brigade who are beset by anxieties about imagined Muslim hypermasculinity. Minortyism too has abundantly proliferated in reaction. I have discussed this elsewhere in greater detail so I will not go into this aspect of the problem here. However, it is important to acknowledge that this has resulted in Muslims defending practices that are clearly known to have been abhorrent to their beloved prophet, in the name of technical legalities surrounding instant triple talaq or talaq-e-bidat. 
 
Most books in English on the subject matter are about Muslims and address non-Muslim readers—painstakingly defending or decrying Islam. Till Talaq Do Us Part by Zia Us Salam is refreshing in also addressing Muslim readers. It is positioned as a primer on the issue of Talaq busting myths of all kinds and making a strong case for potential for gender justice from within Islam. From chapter 1 to 10 Salam maps out in a very simple, readable and yet nuanced narrative, the problems in prevailing practises and the roots of these problems. 
 
Unlike academic books on the theme, this book is topical and brings the readers up to date until the Shyara Bano case. The author’s journalistic antecedents are on display in this aspect in the chapters 11 to 14 where he documents the trajectory of the most recent developments in the political life of the ‘triple talaq’ controversy. 
 
After the nuanced readings of such sources as the Quran, different theological schools of thought on topics such as halala, polygamy and khula, his oversimplified representation of the contemporary legal activism on the matter is surprising, even jarring. In the way he tells it, there are two protagonists in the narrative on instant triple talaq namely, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan (BMMA) and All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). Numerous other voices that contributed to the debate on legal sanctity and criminalising instant triple talaq have been completely silenced in his account. Flavia Agenes of Majlis Legal Centre and Hasina Khan of Bebak Collective are the most prominent omissions. These voices have elsewhere highlighted the obfuscation of Muslim women’s socio-economic struggles by overpowering public and media discourse on their struggles against Muslim patriarchy. They have also brought to fore how Muslim women have already been claiming and getting relief on divorce related matters from the courts taking recourse of civil laws.    
 
While it is true that Muslim Women’s rights organisations are gaining prominence and voice within the larger women’s rights movement in India, unfortunately the mainstream media and most popular commentators continue to privilege the voices that use the same tired vocabulary of Muslim women’s victimhood caused by religious practices.
 
It has to be acknowledged, and Salam evidences it in his book, that for a religion, Islam takes a surprisingly pragmatic and unsentimental view of marriage and separation. As is often repeated marriage is not a sacrament in Islam. This approach is an acknowledgement of the fact that unhappy marriages are possible and that the faithful are not required by the religion to continue to suffer in unhappy marriages. 
 
If this indeed is the case then why do South Asian Muslim societies perceive divorce as something devastating for women? It is not that divorce and separation are essentially violent and oppressive acts or events. The reasons that make divorce such an undesirable event is because women in patriarchal societies are generally not considered autonomous beings, unmarried women are supposed to not have any social standing, and divorced women can only be victims and sufferers.    
 
The paradox in a book such as this is that the author takes great pains to clarify that Islam does not discriminate against women and is protective of women’s interests, but then quickly falls into the pitfall of an argument that religious practices of Muslims are the sole cause of their misery. It is this conundrum of the questions of Indian Muslim women which even Salam has been unable to avoid. Perhaps one reason could be that in chapter 11 and 12 Salam found himself on unfamiliar territory and did not have enough time to bother with the complexities of Muslim women’s movement in India.
 
Although, in chapter 13 he briefly recounts previous case law—according to him ‘rulings that paved the way’—the conclusion somehow seems to be that Shayara Bano case is a closure of Muslim women’s problems with issues arising out of divorce. Unfortunately, the failings of Shayara Bano case glare in our face when from chapter 12 of the book we know that the sweeping judgement failed to take into consideration the misery of the individual petitioners and provided absolutely no relief to them. Chapter 14 is dedicated to give AIMPLB some breathing space—which in most other accounts has been painted as a body that either has no locus standi in the matter being merely an NGO or a group of misogynist clerics.  
 
In the subsequent chapters Salam gains back his composure and takes stock of measures taken against arbitrary triple talaq in Muslim countries across the globe. It is a chronicle of gender just practices that are considered Islamic. It is a chapter that will be found very useful for advocacy purposes among South Asian Muslims. Finally, Salam takes stock of the actually existing situation of incident of triple talaq and the dealing of cases of marital discord and divorce (talaq and khula) in the Qazi Courts. The impression one comes away is that the whole brouhaha is like a storm in a cup. Although Salaam evidences it, he refrains from concluding this clearly.
 
As Muslims are moving away from the language of hurt sentiments and are learning to speak in the language of citizenship rights, they have to apply the standards of justice and equality also to issues that have long been asserted as internal to the community. A discussion on these issues in Muslim public sphere is important in this regard. It is important to realise that the onus to have this discussion does not lie only on organisations such as All India Muslim Personal Law Board or Muslim clerics. Muslim activists, intellectuals and law experts are debating and addressing these questions squarely. Ziya Us Salam’s book Till Talaq Do Us Part is an important contribution to this debate which should ensure that Muslims participate in the discussion better informed.     
This is an English translation of review written originally for The Wire Urdu.

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Ghazala Jamil Written by:

Ghazala Jamil is Assistant Professor at Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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