Muslim women in India seek equal rights under personal law

Zakia Soman, founding member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan. Photo: CivilSocietyOnline.com

Muslim women in India are organizing against what they see as unfair laws regarding marriage, divorce, and property rights. Although the Indian Constitution offers all citizens equal rights irrespective of gender and religion, these rights do not extend to personal law. India does not have a uniform civil code; in family matters, legal decisions are based on religious law.

Muslims in India are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937, which defines the scope of Muslim personal law as including all affairs regarding succession, marriage, dissolution of marriage, guardianship, and property rights. Muslim personal law is largely uncodified, and legal decisions are made by courts on the basis of the Qur’an and hadith. Organizations like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (JUH) see themselves as spokespersons for the Muslim community, and lobby the government in cases where they believe Muslim law is being impinged upon.

Women’s groups have criticized the AIMPLB and JUH for their retrograde views regarding women’s rights.

India is one of the only countries where Muslim women are rarely allowed to pray in mosques and have limited legal recourse (including receiving alimony) if their husbands divorce them through triple talaq. Marriages are not required to be registered, and sometimes made without women’s consent. Women’s groups have argued that since personal laws are uncodified, customary practices have superseded Qur’anic law.

The AIMPLB and JUH have also been criticized for lobbying the government to make laws regarding women without involving women in the decision-making process. Zakia Soman, one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, an organization of more than 20,000 Muslim women from 15 Indian states told The New York Times:

The clerics are ignorant about what the Koran has to say on the subject of women’s lives. The Muslim Personal Law Board is not representative of all Muslims. Nobody elected them, and they have very few women in their organization. They don’t consider women equal, which is extremely un-Islamic. God doesn’t distinguish between men and women.

Muslim women’s groups have pointed out that the Qur’an promotes gender equality and, historically, Islam was a reformist movement that gave women the right to divorce, re-marry, and work.

What is interesting about this situation is that Muslim women in India are not arguing against Qur’anic law. Rather, they are asking for the rights guaranteed to them by the Qur’an. Zeenat Shaukat Ali, a professor of Islamic Studies at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, told The Times:

We shouldn’t forget that the Prophet himself was one of the first feminists. We need to settle the legal reform debate. Let the clerics and male scholars come and discuss this, with the women’s activists on the other side.

Do you think Muslim law regarding women should be made without their participation? Should a democratic country like India have different personal laws for different religions? Does such a system give too much power to unelected religious leaders? Do you think clerics in India are accurately interpreting Qur’anic law with respect to women? Please leave a comment below.

5 thoughts on “Muslim women in India seek equal rights under personal law

  1. The woman wing crticising Jamiat Ulama-i- Hind, the most powerful Muslim body in India is unjustified as in the last generral session held at Ram lila Ground the JUH boldly came out against injustice meted out to woman and demanded equal share for Muslim woman enshrined in Quran and Hadith. Here is resolution of JUH passed in May 2012 at Ram lil ground New Delhi which saw lacs of people all across the country:

    Resolution about the Rights of Woman
    Islam has given unparallel right to woman. No other law accords woman’ rights like this. Islam has entrusted separate responsibilities to man and woman according to their physical make-up and particular psychology and man has been obliged to look after her rights. Woman as mother, sister and wife can play an important role in forming better society. Therefore, Islam has given primacy to her protection at every level. Islam promised reward of paradise for one who brins up female children well and declared serving his mother as a guarantee for paradise. In Islam, The best man is one is the best toward his wife. It is distinction of Islam that it has accorded woman right to inheritance.
    Despite these irrefutable facts, this general session of Jamiat Ulama-i- Hind feels that today’s Muslim society is callous towards the rights of woman. It is matter of anguish that girls are treated as burden and they are denied well- upbringing, education and right to inheritance. Injustice and cruelty to wife and divorce is rampant in Muslim society.
    The woman of this age, while on one hand, has to face ocean of indecent, promiscuous and immodest from western culture that has snatched away her feminism. On the other hand she gets injustice from his own people. Therefore this General Session of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind appeals to all Muslim community to act on Islamic instructions about rights of woman. Therefore this session demands that:
    • As per the law of our country, woman is denied right to inheritance in agricultural land. It is a great injustice meted out to her as well is against Law of Islamic inheritance. Therefore the existing law should be amended to ensure her rights.
    • In complete contrast to the Islamic teachings, in Muslim society, woman is practically deprived of her right to inheritance. We should collectively try to reform this trend so that we could become ideal for others.
    • Education of woman is of matter of great importance. It must be clear that there is no gender discrimination with regard to education in Islam. However co-education and unveiling is not allowed. It is our duty to establish girl institutions where they can get education freely. If there is any discrimination against girls observing purdah in govt. and non- govt. institutions, we should take serious note to get the culprit punished according to the law of land.
    • We should strengthen system of Mahakim-e-Shariah for delivering justice to woman in family related cases. We should launch movements for creating awareness about rights of woman at community level

  2. Thanks very much for commenting. We really appreciate your reading and participating in the blog. Thanks also for posting about the recent resolution regarding women. One of the responses I’ve heard from women activists is not that there is a problem with the resolution per se, but rather that many of these decisions (including the resolution) are made without women’s input. So even if the resolutions are in their favor, the fact that they are not consulted is problematic. What do you think about that?

  3. Yes it is true that as per qoranic law Women have right to inheritence in agricultural property but can anybody says that everybody is following qoranic rule?Qoran says if a person theft anything just cut the hand so why do not we do so fight with Govt.for enforcing the qoranic rule .Fully qoranic rule is following in Saudi arabia etc & in democratic country Muslim personal law is ruling.
    I want to ask one thing if a women get marry in another home now she look after thier own husband’s parental home.But men look after all agricultural land and other property.He expenses in land for anything like as plough, seed,sow cost, land cutting etc, land’s govt tax reciept etc after father’s death.So from my point of view who look after land and plough who has full right to aquire agricultural land.
    Another thing that if land is main resources of livehood for a male in that case women claim in agricultural land then what will happen with the male .
    if there is two male(Brother) & 7 female (Sister) and if female wants division of land property then what will happen with males.Definitely male will fall in ditch because after distribution most part of property will go to female side.
    3) If females(sistr) are married and well settled but male(bro) are not well settled and males are less than females then what will be in that case, what should be distribution way?

    So i am not against the land property division but just we should think that how it will be more effective for both male & female.

  4. Why should Islamic law be allowed in India? Just curious if Muslim countries will allow any other law other than Sharia.
    And what about women who choose not to marry a Muslim? Really this law has no place in India. Sati was abolished so should this law be abolished-its unfair and brutal for women.