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A farce of a nikahnama

- By Seema Mustafa  

The importance being attached to itself by the Muslim Personal Law Board is bewildering. A group of self-appointed persons have come together yet again, this time to propose a nikahnama (marriage document) that they claim will protect the rights of the Muslim woman. And liberals all over - mind you, not Muslim women - have joined them in welcoming the "big step," the "first important step," the "great beginning" as if the proposals contained in the nikahnama are actually going to help liberate the Muslim woman from the shackles that have come to be associated with marriage.

The two main reasons for the destitution and victimisation of the Muslim woman are the triple talaq pronouncement by which a legitimately married woman finds herself out on the streets after a lifetime; and the refusal of the Muslim man to pay her and her children maintenance because of which she often becomes a destitute. The Muslim Personal Law Board has not addressed these issues at all. In fact, all that the Board has done is to declare that the triple talaq method of divorce is undesirable and should definitely not be used as a favoured practice by the Muslim man to get rid of his wife. But then this is what even the worst fanatics say, for there can be no practising Muslim who can actually stand up and declare that triple talaq - the method by which a woman can be divorced by the man by pronouncing the word talaq three times at one go - is a preferred right and can be exercised without discrimination.

I still remember at a conference, several years ago, when a cleric stood up and in his sanctimonious speech challenged women's organisations to show him one woman who had been thrown into the depths of destitution because of the Muslim man's complete misuse of this provision. We had urged him then to accompany us to the walled city or even to our homes to bring out those "Shakilas" who had found themselves outside the institution of marriage simply because the man they were married to decided one fine day to give them a divorce. Now we are told by the Muslim Personal Law Board that while triple talaq is not a happy proviso, there is little that the august members can do about it at this stage. And we are told by liberals that at least the Muslim clerics have taken the first step by recognising that the triple talaq is not a happy practice, and that they should be given an opportunity to fine tune their reservations further.

It is not surprising that the loudest protest is coming from the Muslim women's organisations and individuals who have not hesitated to decry the Board's sanctimonious nikahnama as a "farce" and have made it very clear to those who are willing to listen that the marriage document does not meet any of their requirements. Triple talaq is an abhorrent practice against which most Muslim countries have legislated. That the Muslim Personal Law Board in India has refused to shun it altogether speaks volumes for the backward thinking of its members. Apparently, there was not a single voice in the Board to speak in favour of a more progressive nikahnama, a document that would protect the rights of women and ensure that not a single person was left without a home and without the means to sustain herself at the end of the day.

Maintenance is another issue that has to be looked at closely, for the provisions of the Shariat are being abused by the Muslim man to deny the woman her basic rights. The new nikahnama proposed by the Board speaks of giving the meher money at the time of marriage or within a specified time frame. This is fine, but if meher is also the only money that a Muslim woman is entitled to after marriage, then surely the members of the Board should have stepped in to ensure that the amount is directly proportionate to the husband's income, and sufficient for the wife to draw upon lest she be thrown out by the man one fine day. At present, the meher fixed at marriages is as low as a few hundred or few thousand rupees, "pandan" money just sufficient to buy "paan" by the woman. It is all very well to say that the woman's family should insist on a handsome amount but the members of the Board know better than others, that this does not happen in reality. But if this sum is specified, and stipulated, then perhaps women might have a little more protection and will not remain dependent on the "goodness of man" as appears to be the case now.

There are thousands of Muslim men who marry four times, leave their wives and their children without meher or with the pittance that passes for meher, and move on to exercise this other right that the Indian Muslim man has abused through the years. The woman is left holding the children, and is out on the streets looking for some means to earn a livelihood for herself and her children. Triple talaq, four wives, no maintenance - and this has been virtually endorsed by the Muslim Personal Law Board with the new nikahnama containing not a single provision to guard the Muslim woman from this sustained abuse. The Board has claimed that it will not be guided by other Muslim countries, simply because many of these nations have enacted laws ensuring that a man cannot exercise any of these supposed rights without sufficient checks built into the legal system. He cannot pronounce triple talaq in many countries and has to convince a court of law.

He cannot marry even a second time without convincing the court with the first wife having full powers to ask for legal redress. But here, all that they produce at the end of the day is a useless marriage document, a complete farce that says nothing that has not been said before. I hope I am wrong, but apparently there is now a move by some Muslim leaders to insist that the matters relating to personal law should be tried by Shariat courts and not the court of the land. Fortunately, in a secular state like India this demand will just remain that, a demand, and cannot seriously be considered as a possibility. The few Muslim women who have got some kind of relief - be it Shah Bano or anyone else - are amongst those who have approached the secular courts who have then interpreted the Muslim law to ensure that women are given their rights. God help them if even this freedom to approach the courts is taken away and their future shackled to the Shariat courts that the Muslim men are proposing to further consolidate their hold over the women. One can only say that the advocates of this must also then allow the Islamic financial laws and criminal laws to prevail, and insist that they are tried for the abuse of these provisions of the Shariat as well. It is amazing how willingly the men here have given up the stringent Islamic financial and criminal laws to adopt the secular laws of the land, while they shout themselves hoarse when any attempt is made to bring the personal laws - including Hindu and Christian laws - under a secular framework as well.

So while the Muslim man is not willing to have his hand cut off for stealing, he is the first to stand in line and scream when the courts allow the meagre maintenance of Rs 500 under the Criminal Procedure Code to a destitute woman (Shah Bano) to prevent her from destitution. Again while the Muslim man is not willing to pay zakat or turn away the handsome interest he gets on his fixed deposits from the banks, he is the first to attack those questioning his right to divorce his wife in one sitting, to marry again, and to ensure that not a rupee is paid from his coffers for the upkeep of the woman who has spent a lifetime with him.

It is strange that there are many Muslim liberals now who are actually applauding the Muslim Personal Law Board for bringing out a marriage document that does not address the fundamental issues and betrays the usual lack of sensitivity to the victimisation and exploitation of women under the guise of religion. There can be no meaningful nikahnama until and unless it protects the woman's rights in marriage, to have a say in both her marriage and divorce, to have a right to the custody of her children, and to receive maintenance from her husband that is not meher but an amount fixed to ensure her a decent life. Anything less cannot be acceptable to any woman who values her dignity and self respect