Muslim women in rural UP split on the Triple Talaq Bill

The issue of triple talaq is back in the national hot seat as the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2018 — informally known as the Triple Talaq Bill — was brought up for discussion in the Parliament during the winter session. The Bill, which seeks to criminalise the practice of instantaneous divorce in the Muslim community, was presented in the Rajya Sabha on 21 December, 2018, and was immediately tabled amid chaotic Upper House proceedings. It was picked up again on 2 January, and has been the subject of furious debates since. Speaking with various stakeholders at the local level in Bundelkhand, we find a situation more complex than just a divided house. Muslim women seem split on the Bill for a variety of reasons. “I think passing this Bill is the right decision,” says Chitrakoot-native Mirchi, “Husbands would leave their wives at the smallest of things earlier, like if there was too little salt in the dal… But now, at least, he will think twice before uttering those words. I think this is great for women.” Madina Begum, another Chitrakoot local, was in favour of the Bill too, “Men could say and do whatever they wanted, women had no value. Now, they will not be able to do that.” Rizvana Parveen, BJP’s executive district head of Chitrakoot, agrees, which perhaps does not come as a surprise, “This is a common practice: say talaq three times and leave your wife, maintain the three-month iddat period, the wife would have to marry a stranger and perform her wifely duties for him, and then the ex-husband could marry a new woman.” Although there is no clear data on triple talaq cases in India, there are some figures that help expound the reality of divorce in the Muslim community. An Indiaspend report, which analyses 2011 Census data, found that for every divorced Muslim man, there are four divorced Muslim women — indicating that the men are quicker to remarry. Parveen highlights what she terms as the “degrading aspect” of triple talaq, “There was this mentality that you could marry a Muslim woman whenever you wanted and leave her anytime you wished, she had no value. Women's respect and dignity were completely squashed.” Parveen firmly positions the Bill as a move towards Muslim women’s empowerment, “The government’s Bill will help women find self-respect,” she adds. Parveen toes the party line of course — empowerment of Muslim women is the primary reason behind pushing the Bill. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of Law and Justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad on 28 December, 2017, shortly after the SC termed triple talaq unconstitutional. Although it was strongly opposed in the Lower House, it was passed on the very same day because BJP had a clear majority. However, it has since been stalled and is pending in the Rajya Sabha. In August 2018, further amendments were made to the Bill, which are being hotly debated, both inside the parliament and outside. But there are many who disagree with Centre's stand. Gudiya from Mahoba says, “I think this rule is counterproductive women. There is a little room for reconciliation, which is often a desirable option for women.” While the amended Bill specifically makes provisions for compounding, which refers to the possibility of the two parties stopping legal proceedings to settle the dispute, Gudiya doesn't think it's that simple, “But what about the criminal aspect? That will really sour the relationship. Usually the married couples’ families intervene and the couple makes up. But if the law is involved, that becomes difficult,” she adds. Rokaiya, a Chitrakoot resident, expresses concern about the impact that prison time, or even the possibility of it, will have on women’s lives, “If my husband goes to jail, and my birth family and my in-laws both refuse to take me in, where will I go?” Tabsum, from Mahoba, echoes Rokaiya's thoughts, “According to this Bill, if the husband is found guilty, he will be jailed for three years. The woman is left behind with in-laws or other family members, and she is more than likely to get tortured. Their children's lives will also be ruined, they will be completely shunned by the society.” Although the 2018 Bill specifies that there must be provisions for maintenance, the reality of alimony is a dismal one. A survey by Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan reveals that 95% of divorced women receive no maintenance from their husbands. And if the estranged husband is in jail, the question of receiving the due maintenance becomes nearly impossible — an even greater problem when compounded with the reality of women’s economic dependence and the general stigma around divorce in our society. Some, like Rustom Khan, mince no words in their assessment of the Bill. A local social activist, he only talks politics, “This is just Modi's preparation for 2019 to garner Muslim votes. This is useless for Muslim women and out of touch with their needs — it has no benefits and provides them with no safety.” He adds dryly, “If three months of jail time is enough to stop a man from leaving his wife, then going to jail for committing a murder should have put a stop to murders itself. Has it?” Sushil Kumar Shrivastav, a council member in Chitrakoot, too likens it to communal politics, “This is just an issue they're raising for the upcoming elections — like they had done in 2014 with Ram Mandir.” While the issue is being debated in the Parliament, politicians outside — especially from Opposition — have a lot to say. Shamim Bandwi, Banda District Head of Samjawadi Party, and a local shayar, was quick to denounce the Bill, “There is no goal for this Triple Talaq Bill. People are making fun of it, saying this shows how little the ruling party understands the religion.” Balu Lal Chakravarti, an SP party worker in Banda adds, “They are just distracting the public by turning everyone's attention to this one topic, just to take the focus away from inflation, students, unemployment or farmer's crisis.” Congress’ district head in Banda, Akhilesh Kumar Shukal, who takes a less harsh stance on the need for the Bill says, “There is some room for improvement in the provisions for women in Muslim personal law.” However, he is not in favour of the existing Bill, “Congress has said, even in the previous sessions, that some discussion and scrutiny of this Bill is very important, some questions need to be answered.” He, too, ties BJP’s push to this Bill to vote bank politics, “BJP is really gunning for the criminalisation aspect. Instead, Congress believes that we need to first address the difficulties that arise for women with this Bill, such as the payment of maintenance when the husband is in jail; there are no such provisions,” he adds. R K Patel, resident BJP MLA of Mau Manikpur, and a popular figure locally, was all in favour of the Bill, “This is not just about Muslims,” he says, addressing the point about desertion being an issue for many married women regardless of religion, “I'm not talking about Hindus or Muslims, I am talking about the women's welfare.” He draws a comparison to the abolition of the Hindu practice of sati, “The end of sati was great for the daughters, wives and women of the country. It gave them freedom. Similarly, Modi ji is creating this amazing law for our Muslim daughters and sisters.” As another session of the Parliament is coming to an end, The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2018 seems to be in troubled waters, facing strong resistance from Opposition, combined with the loss of BJP ally Janata Dal. Without a majority in the Upper House, it seems unlikely that this Bill can be rushed through by the BJP. But, with the polls imminent, it doesn’t seem like they will stop trying. Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.