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Muslim Women’s Dilemma on Uniform Civil Code

Hasina Khan |
Don’t expect ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers from women’s groups on UCC. Muslim women don’t want to be on the same side as religious groups and conservatives which let them down.
Uniform Civil Code

The Uniform Civil Code has unsurprisingly staged a comeback in public debates, for it has been on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ’s agenda for decades. And it has put all of us groups working for decades with a large section of the Muslim communities—the women—into a perpetual dilemma. The demand is to answer whether we support the UCC with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when we do not know what the UCC means. So, as this writer attempts to answer this question, a much-needed exercise, let us begin by placing our position on laws related to families and intimacies upfront.

We have long struggled for and constantly demanded gender justice laws related to the family. Families are of various kinds, and all of them must be included within the ambit of the law. One law based on a patriarchal, patrilineal concept of family cannot apply to everyone. The diversity of lived realities must be maintained, so uniformity is no measure of justice. Our position today is to ask for laws that reflect our present-day realities and provide all citizens rights and justice within the constitutional framework.

Now to the dilemma of Muslim women. A ‘yes’ to the UCC means trusting the ruling party, which has continuously eroded the secular fabric of this country and has a bad track record on gender justice and reforming all family laws. But a ‘no’ to the UCC means agreeing with the heads of the religious communities of all shades—for Muslim women in particular; it means agreeing with the Muslim community leaders—who never want any reform in personal laws.

We need to understand why both of these do not even qualify as ‘choices’, and here are the reasons:

Ruling Party and State it Controls

Particularly over the last nine years, we have seen what the BJP and its government are all about. Can Muslim women expect justice from a government whose people gathered bricks from the fallen Babri masjid and collected money for decades to build a temple in its place? Can we trust a government that has encouraged hate speech and turned a blind eye when non-State actors targeted and attacked our homes, communities and people? And, after all the polarisation done in our name, what have Muslim women gained? They have no money, no education and no social security. We only got speeches in our name from the Prime Minister!

The BJP has expressed fever-pitch concern for Muslim women for nine years, but what rights have we won? How much of the budget has been allotted for us, what policies have been framed keeping our situation in mind, and what schemes have been launched for Muslim women? I ask this because Muslim women are among the most marginalised of India’s population on numerous socio-economic fronts. We do not see any proactive action on our behalf.

What we do see is a particular attack on us as Muslim women. The government, in fact, cancelled the Maulana Azad National Fellowship scheme and created unnecessary havoc around school uniforms, which has made access to education more difficult for Muslim women. It attacked the Shaheen Bagh movement all over the country—a movement Muslim women led which asked for citizenship rights within the constitutional framework.
Is it just propaganda you can provide in the name of Muslim women?

Gender Justice Track Record

The government and the Prime Minister speak of Muslim women’s rights, but what is their track record on gender justice?

Young Muslim girls who spoke out on social media were auctioned on ‘Sulli-Bulli’ apps, the Hathras rape victim was even denied a proper cremation, internationally recognised women wrestlers were maligned for raising a valid demand for action against their harasser, Kuki women have been waiting for almost three months for you to intervene in the violence in Manipur and save peoples lives and properties. The response from your government has been repeated inaction and siding with the violators and harassers.

What kind of gender justice can we expect from a government that is attacking inter-religious marriages by propagating false narratives and opposing queer and trans people as they ask for the right to make families?

You claimed that you freed women from the injustice of instant triple talaq after Muslim women like us had won the battle in the Supreme Court. You ostensibly supported us by criminalising instant triple talaq, which sent women’s husbands to jail after one-sided divorces had already been held as illegal. We are still trying to figure out how such a step helped the women fighting wrongful divorces.

Your understanding of gender justice seems to be just finding ways to arrest more Muslim men. Like George Bush, who attacked Iraq in the name of democracy when he was really after West Asian oil, the BJP says it is for Muslim women when it is only out to victimise us as a community.

No way can we trust this government or ever believe it wants the UCC for anybody’s good. It comes from the conservative politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which fought tooth and nail against Hindu women’s right to divorce and inherit property. Indeed, all justice-seeking people should worry about what this setup will bring in the name of a Uniform Civil Code.

For the last nine years, the Indian State has demonstrated its worst record towards citizens from minority religious communities. Only a government that believes in a majoritarian non-constitutional approach towards citizens can speak of implementing a UCC in this environment. And there is no doubt that if such a code ever comes, it will be against the protected practices of many communities, destroying our country’s diverse and plural lived realities.

There is no way we could say ‘yes’ to a UCC conceived by a government with this mindset!

Real Choices Exist

So then, is it a ‘no’? This story is not that simple because it makes us stand with the religious heads and others of our communities who claim to represent Muslims of all shades but never address Muslim women’s demands.

We have witnessed the Muslim religious viewpoint and learned that, unfortunately, it has no ears for us.

After the Shah Bano case in 1985, the ulemas screamed about Islam being in danger and gathered lakhs on the streets to oppose minimal court-ordered maintenance for a divorced Muslim woman. Overturning that ruling increased the influence of the ulemas. Muslim conservatives who contested rights for women could sway people to their side only because they appeared to be backed by religious authority.

As representatives of Muslim women forced to bear the weight of our personal laws, we first sought the intervention of religious organisations like the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which all governments considered—in matters related to personal laws—as the representative of Muslim communities. We wrote to this body regularly, but it cared to respond to us only once, in 2001, when it agreed to a two-day meeting. That discussion became a turning point in our struggle, for when we sought its intervention, its members told us they were not a statutory body. They said they are “like us”—just a voluntary outfit! It meant we could have no hope of them at all.

Yet, we continued engaging with them and others who took on the role of representing the concerns of the Muslim community. They, however, could never come up with a response to us on, for instance, the instant triple talaq issue. That was when we reminded them that God does not appreciate divorce.

But it was our voice against their power within the community. Using this power, they formulated, in 2005, a model nikahnama [contract of marriage] that was so unjust to women that we had to tear it to pieces at a press conference. Their model nikahnama said that a wife’s najayaz harkat—‘wrong act’—is a ground for divorce. But who defines a ‘wrong act’? On that, their model is silent.

But we knew—because a steady stream of women kept reaching out to us seeking help with divorces granted over ‘wrongs’ such as refusing to have sex, or cook food, or disobeying a husband’s order. We knew that the divorce certificates handed out to women were essentially certificates of being “characterless”, in which they were accused of having “done something wrong”.

Seeing the opaqueness to change within the community, we changed our strategy. Instead of reporting women’s problems only to the religious outfits, we decided also to approach the courts. But many Muslim women were unable to endure long legal battles, and this made us re-strategise all over again. So, after 2001, we started approaching the courts for causes that concern all women, not just individuals. For instance, we worked with the Ahmedabad-based Awaaz to petition the Supreme Court against discriminatory practices in Muslim personal law. The court rejected our contentions on the very first hearing.

Still, we persisted, and that is how we ended up in court seeking a constitutional review of the practice of one-sided triple talaq, in which the Supreme Court rightly ruled in our favour and held it illegal.

Identity and Seige

Over the years, as Muslim identity and existence have been under siege by violent anti-Muslim episodes, the community’s need to stand together has grown and grown. After the riots of the 1990s came the carnage of 2002, which pushed Muslim women even more on the back foot. During such times of violent attacks and grievous losses, these religious organisations stood by the community—never the State! And these spokespersons of the community discouraged people from demanding reforms and expected women never to air their issues in public.

As a result, these bodies have now gained twin powers over us Muslim women—they can hurt our interests, and, despite this, they can exert moral pressure on us. Today, the situation is such that even talking about personal law reform is seen as a threat to Muslim identity. Recall that it is organisations such as the AIMPLB that are saying ‘no’ to the UCC. We are unable to align our voices with them because we are never sure whether they are against this attack by the State on Muslim communities—or against demands for gender justice.

Today we firmly believe that if our endeavour for internal reforms through religious outfits, governments and law courts had succeeded, the BJP’s UCC would have failed. This sword that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar keep dangling over our heads would have been meaningless if the community had paid attention to the voices of their own community members. The religious organisations could have prioritised women’s concerns, which were repeatedly brought before them. But they did not listen, vacating a space which the Hindutva government had started occupying.

That is why, over the last four decades, we have learnt that there will never be a right time for women and others marginalised by patriarchal family structures enshrined in our current laws. We are astute enough to know that we were never the first priority of any government. And we also know that religious fundamentalists and conservatives who claim to help us have never found the right time for us.

That is why we have worked hard to make our demands wider and aligned with others who think like us. We demand gender-just laws for all communities and all people. As Muslim women, we join our voices with many others asking for the same rights. We have been having many discussions amongst ourselves. Many more such conversations are required because changing just the laws will never be enough to change the system. But we need that conversation now and urgently.

All of us, who see through the dangerous rhetoric of this government and the Sangh Parivar, also call out the misrepresentation by self-appointed men and organisations (which claim to represent different communities) to have these conversations. We must hold on to our practices while looking across at the many other ways to interpret them to make them just and equitable for everybody.

One hopes the 22nd Law Commission is paying real attention to the many considered submissions it is getting and not swayed by the uncalled-for, meaningless and deceitful referendum promoted by those invested in dividing us—not to mention those with views that come from a place of complete ignorance!

The Law Commission needs to initiate a robust public conversation with stakeholders to build on the 21st Law Commission’s 2018 report, which said that reforms in personal laws are required but not the UCC! We hope real people affected by the injustice of personal laws get a space at the head of that discussion table.

The author is with the Bebaak Collective. She wishes to acknowledge Chayanika Shah’s contributions to writing this piece. The views are personal.

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