By Frank F. Islam
On August 22, the Supreme Court ruled that triple talaq — the practice which allows a man to divorce his wife instantly by saying the word talaq thrice — is unconstitutional. Predictably, the ruling was denounced by a number of Muslim leaders and organisations. Some interpreted it as an attack on their religion and way of life. Others saw a conspiracy angle in the importance given to an issue.
This perspective is desperate and distorted. This perspective is not only wrong but also wrong-headed, misplaced and misguided.
I applaud this judgement because I strongly believe that Muslim instant divorce is illegal and incorrect in many ways. Instant divorce is deplorable, disgraceful and shameful. In addition, it is demeaning, demonising, disheartening and demoralising to Indian Muslim women.
Most importantly, as one of the judges pointed out, triple talaq is against the basic tenets of the Quran. Recognising this, many Islamic countries, including two of India’s large Muslim neighbours — Pakistan and Bangladesh — have abolished the practice.
In addition, it is unconscionable to think that a man should be allowed to banish a woman to whom he is married — who is also the mother of his child or children, in many cases — by uttering a word three times, with no consequences. Triple talaq is also inherently discriminatory in that only a man has that “right” — a Muslim woman cannot end the marriage in a similar way.
Over the years, some Muslim organisations have rationalised triple talaq by arguing that divorce rates within their community are quite low compared to other religious groups. It affects less than a third of a per cent of Muslim women, they argue. This is neither a sound legal nor moral argument. Even if one concedes that instant divorce affects only a minuscule population, injustice should never have legal sanction, regardless of how many people are affected.
The triple talaq ruling, the result of a decades-long campaign by women’s rights groups, was a historic verdict. With the stroke of a pen, the judges made illegal a practice that over the decades has ruined the lives of countless Indian Muslim women.
In the absence of a comprehensive study among Indian Muslim women, it is not known how many of them have been divorced in this manner. A 2013 survey of Muslim women in 10 Indian states by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, an advocacy group that fights for the rights of Indian Muslims, found that triple talaq was the most common mode of divorce among those surveyed.
Of the 4,710 women sampled in the survey, 525 were divorcees. Of them, 404 were victims of triple talaq. More than 80 per cent of them did not receive any compensation at the time of divorce.
Two of the five judges that delivered the triple talaq judgment differed on the constitutionality of practice. The bench was in unanimous agreement, however, in asking the government to enact within six months legislation to govern Muslim marriages and divorces.
India’s justice system has numerous drawbacks. It often takes decades for courts to deliver justice. In this instance, the Supreme Court should be applauded for delivering a correct judgment in a timely manner.
The ball is now in the government’s court. It is up to people’s representatives to come up with policies that will change the lives of Muslim women for the better.
Equitable legislation on Muslim marriages and divorces should be just the starting point. The central and state governments must craft policies that empower women belonging to all castes, creeds and religions. Such policies should focus on educating women, developing their skills and making them part of the work force. Empowerment of this type will allow them to pursue and create their own destiny. It will lead to financial independence. In addition, it will promote the security and stability of women and will build their self-esteem and confidence.
India’s Muslim community should embrace the Supreme Court verdict. They should join together to say: End triple talaq. End triple talaq. End triple talaq. They should leverage the verdict as an opportunity to advocate for and bring about much-needed reforms related to women’s rights.
(Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader and thought Leader based in the Washington DC area. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)