NEW DELHI (RNS) Afreen Rehman, a 25-year-old Muslim woman, received a letter from her husband while visiting her parents in Jaipur earlier this year.
In it were three words: “talaq, talaq, talaq”– or “divorce” three times in Arabic, thus ending their marriage of two years.
“That talaqnama (or divorce letter), which came without any warning, left me shattered,” Rehman said. “We had some differences between us. He did not propose to sort them out by sitting with me or my relatives, but ended up divorcing me this way.”
She viewed the divorce letter as unjust and appealed to India’s Supreme Court.
Rehman seeks a ban on the Muslim practice in which a Muslim man can divorce his wife just by uttering “talaq” three times. It has thrust her into the forefront of a movement fighting for the rights of Muslim women in a patriarchal society.
“Thousands of Muslim women in India go through indescribable miseries after being divorced by their husbands the way I have been,” she said. “I have moved the court because I don’t want any Muslim woman to go through the pain, torture and humiliation which I have gone through.”
In March, the court admitted a petition from Shayara Bano, another recently divorced Muslim woman, who sought a ban on the triple talaq, polygamy and nikah halala — a Muslim law in which a divorced woman has to marry a second man and then divorce him, to be eligible for remarriage to her former husband. Bano, 35, is from the northern state of Uttarakhand.
In Hindu-majority India, where 180 million Muslims constitute the largest religious minority, marriage and divorce are governed by Muslim Personal Law.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which is known as the caretaker body of MPL, will oppose Rehman and Bano in court.
In April, the board unanimously passed a resolution calling for noninterference by the government or court in the issue of Muslim Personal Law.
“In fact, triple talaq has no Quranic sanction; it’s haraam (forbidden),” said Asma Zehra, a member of the AIMPLB. “We indeed condemn this practice. But AIMPLB being a moral body, it has no power to ban the practice. It can only advise or educate people against resorting to such practice.”
The rate of divorce in Indian Muslim society is still very low and the issue is being blown out of proportion by some “anti-Muslim” forces, she said.
Several Hindu groups and many leaders of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have long campaigned for a single civil code for all citizens in the country.
Salim Engineer, secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, the country’s largest Islamic organization, said that Muslim Personal Law does not discriminate against Muslim women.
But a survey by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, an organization that fights for Muslim women’s civil rights, found that 92 percent of Indian Muslim women wanted triple talaq banned.
“We have documented thousands of cases of triple talaq in which social media, like Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp, were used to dissolve marriages by the men,” said BMMA founder Zakia Soman. “The unilateral instant divorce or triple talaq has no mention in the Quran.”
BMMA recently sent a petition signed by 50,000 Muslims to India’s National Commission for Women seeking abolition of triple talaq.
Professor Tahir Mahmood, former chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, said that triple talaq is an “absurdity that militates against the spirit of the Quran.”
“Nothing in the holy book of Islam can be interpreted to mean that marriage, which it calls a ‘sacred covenant,’ can be terminated by merely repeating the word ‘talk,’” Mahmood said. “The custom of triple talaq has been abolished in a majority of Muslim countries.”
Hilal Ahmed, an assistant professor at New Delhi’s Center for the Study of Developing Societies, said Islam sets out certain mechanisms by which its laws — set forth in the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the hadith — can be reinterpreted in different times and spaces.
He wonders why the Muslim law board can issue a fatwa, or religious decree, asking some Muslims to switch off mobile phones while offering congregational prayer, but can’t ban the triple talaq.
Social activist Javed Anand, general secretary of the group Muslims for Secular Democracy, criticized the law board in a harsher tone.
“How can a practice that is patently unjust be Islamic?” he asked. “I hold the AIMPLB guilty of perpetuating patriarchy and injustice against women in the name of Islam.”
(Akhtar Ali is a correspondent based in New Delhi)