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 Women’s groups have argued that since personal laws are uncodified, customary practices have superseded Qur’anic law.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.
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.