NEW DELHI – When Neha Khan got married at the age of 21, she was looking forward to life with her husband. Her wedding in a suburb of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, was attended by more than 3,000 guests. “My parents left no stone unturned to meet the demands of the groom’s family. They paid a hefty dowry, including a car and expensive furniture,” says Khan.
But soon after the wedding, her mother in-law started mistreating her, accusing Khan of not having brought in enough dowry. “She made my life hell and even physically assaulted me,” says Khan.
Khan tolerated the abuse for six years. But in March of this year, she finally left her husband’s family home and moved back in with her parents. Khan’s husband promised he would collect her once he had found them a home of their own. But he never came.
When her family tried to find out why, Khan’s now ex-husband told them the marriage was no longer valid. He said he had scribbled the word “talaq” – “I divorce you” – three times on a piece of paper and dropped it on the ground near Khan’s parents’ house.
This technique of dissolving a Muslim marriage, available only to men, is known as triple talaq. And according to India’s Muslim Personal Law – which states that in matters of Muslim social life, including marriage, divorce and inheritance, religious law takes precedence over civil law – it is binding.
Khan never found that piece of paper. She just suddenly found herself divorced with no warning, no process and no proof. Now 28, Khan says her life has been “devastated.”
Khan’s experience echoes that of hundreds and thousands of Muslim women in India whose lives are abruptly thrown into chaos when their husbands invoke triple talaq, also known as talaq-e-Biddat or instant talaq. Activists say there has been a steady rise of such cases, and most of the women affected are left to support their children on their own, as they don’t receive any compensation or alimony from their former husbands.
Two years ago, in a rare instance of the courts interfering in Muslim Personal Law, the Supreme Court of India responded to the growing number of women being abandoned through the use of triple talaq by registering a Public Interest Litigation titled “Muslim Women’s Quest for Equality.” The legal action, which is used to advance the rights of minority or disadvantaged groups, aimed to examine whether arbitrary divorce violates women’s rights by treating them like property.
The Supreme Court has now heard the arguments challenging triple talaq and has reserved its verdict, which is expected soon.
The issue came back into the public spotlight last year, when 35-year-old Shayara Bano took to the Supreme Court to call for a ban on triple talaq after her husband of 15 years divorced her in 2015. In her petition, Bano challenged the practice as unconstitutional and discriminatory against Muslim women.
The practice of instant talaq is strongly backed by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), an NGO that has a powerful influence on matters of personal law with relation to India’s Sunni Muslims, who make up more than 90 percent of the country’s Muslims population. As per the board’s decree, which is widely upheld by Islamic clerics, triple talaq is irrevocable.
But the AIMPLB is also aware of the growing public opposition to the practice. During the case in May, the board told the Supreme Court that it would issue a public advisory to advise men against using triple talaq and warn them that resorting to the practice could have social repercussions.
Supreme Court lawyer Chandra Rajan says the Muslim Personal Law is currently too vague to protect women against the damage men can inflict through the use of triple talaq. “The question is not [simply] about triple talaq, but about equality, security and the dignity of women,” she says. “The succession of laws for Muslims in India has failed the women of the community, leaving them vulnerable and at the risk of exploitation by men and the clerics.”
Rajan points out that various provisions in the law that govern the lives of Muslims in India – who make up about 14.2 percent of the country’s population – don’t adequately address issues such as marriage, divorce, polygamy or custody of children, leaving them open to multiple interpretations and misuse.
For example, the law specifies that while a Muslim woman is required to go to the court to seek divorce, a Muslim man can terminate the marriage contract instantly, without the presence of his wife or any witnesses.
For Islamic scholar and activist Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, the problem is that the current use of triple talaq in India is not a proper interpretation of Islamic law. “Triple talaq is not mentioned or sanctioned by the Quran,” he says. “The legitimate form of divorce recognized under Islamic law gives married couples two months to come to some sort of reconciliation [known as Iddat] from the day talaq is pronounced by the husband for the first time.”
After her husband divorced her, Neha Khan turned to the Muslim feminist charity Baharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolon (BMMA) – whose name translates as Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. The organization has been campaigning for the rights of Muslim women within the framework of Islam and the provisions of India’s constitution for more than a decade.
In 2013, BMMA set up a Women’s Shariah Court, which provides Muslim women with legal aid and support on various issues, and offers counseling to warring couples and their families by trained women qazis (adjudicators).
“The concept of women qazi and all-women’s courts, which are gradually being accepted by women, is just a first move in our fight for gender equality. Islam doesn’t prohibit women from becoming clerics,” Noorjehan Safia Niaz, one of the BMMA’s founders, says. “Triple talaq should be abolished and laws must be codified for Muslim women so that they cover all aspects of marriage and family.”
Neha Khan says the support she got from the BMMA’s women’s court gave her the confidence boost she needed to keep fighting for her rights.
“How can a man destroy someone’s life instantly and marry someone else?” she says. “Is the life of woman merely an object that man can own or disown?”
This story originally cited a figure of 92% of Muslim women wanting to end triple talaq. The linked report did not contain that statistic and the reference has been removed.