Women who fought it out

Stories of four of the bravehearts who took instant triple talaq to court and had it banned

Chandrani Banerjee | September 15, 2017


#Afreen Rahman   #politics   #supreme court   #Muslim personal law   #society   #triple talaq   #Farah Faiz   #Zakia Soman   #Shayara Bano  
(Clockwise) Afreen Rahman, Zakia Soman, Shayara Bano and advocate Farah Faiz. Afreen and Shayara received divorce by Speed Post.
(Clockwise) Afreen Rahman, Zakia Soman, Shayara Bano and advocate Farah Faiz. Afreen and Shayara received divorce by Speed Post.

Instant triple talaq – which the supreme court banned recently, while asking the government to legislate against the decadent practice – is something Muslim women had no doubt wanted to speak up against but couldn’t muster strength to bring about progressive change. It took five Muslim women, who received little if any support from the community and were opposed by religious leaders, to finally go to court and have the practice halted.

Despite the court’s decision, many religious leaders, particularly those of hardline views, continue to say this is no victory for women; that women in the community were always well looked after; that none of their rights was being denied to them; that talk of Muslim women being exploited was nothing but rumour. But the stories of the women who took the case to court, and the threats they faced, in themselves speak of how women in the community are victims of sexism.
 
Farah unfazed
 
It was never an easy journey for Farah Faiz, who comes from a family of progressive Muslims of Saharanpur. She remembers an uncle who faced opposition for his progressive views on Islam. Later, she faced opposition from the community for marrying a Hindu.
 
Armed with a law degree, she launched a campaign to make women aware of their rights, including the right to protest if they felt something wrong was being imposed upon them.
 
There were many threats that she faced. She recalls one in particular. “I was going to a rally, and there were many women with me. This was kind of an awareness campaign about triple talaq laws. While we were on our way to the venue, the bus we were travelling in was stopped and vacated. But I was asked to stay in the bus with my daughter. And unknown miscreants were shouting that the bus should be set afire. I had to go to court to even have an FIR registered.”
 
On another occasion, when she was travelling with her daughter from Delhi to Saharanpur to visit her mother, she was harried by some young men. “There were these young fellows I had identified in my FIR. They threatened me throughout from Delhi to Saharanpur. And this was not the only incident.”
 
In the supreme court, she brought home the fact that triple talaq was not just a matter of going against shariah; there were many other factors to the issue. The court, convinced by her presentation of the case, agreed to look at triple talaq and a nine-member committee looked at all aspects. Despite pressure from the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), Faiz did not withdraw the petition. And, as is now well known, the court ruled against instant triple talaq.
 
Abandoned in trouble
 
The shock arrived by Speed Post: a letter told Afreen Rahman, a native of Jaipur, that she was no longer her husband’s wife. Her fault? She says, she had met with a serious accident and her husband now considered her a liability. It didn’t matter to her husband that Afreen had lost her father some years ago and that her mother had died in the accident that left her disabled.
 
Afreen has an MBA, speaks English, and is like many other young Indian professional women. Her marriage wasn’t too happy to begin with; she had been complaining of harassment, dowry demands, beatings. Tired, she had come to live at her parental home when the accident happened.
 
“I was shattered initially that I have just been sent a Speed Post and informed that I am no longer part of a union that was supposed to last forever. It was humiliating and tough. After the accident, everyone looked at me suspiciously. Since I still cannot sit for long hours. I get a swollen leg and it restricts me from walking and moving around,” she says.
 
Despite feeling humiliated, she decided to fight it out alone. A Jaipur-based NGO supported her in the battle. Not surprisingly, religious heads actually discouraged her from fighting it out. 
 
“They would advise me, via relatives, that fighting triple talaq would put my life in a never-ending jeopardy,” she says. “Fighting is not going to help in any way, they told me. Pressure and threats were used. At times, I found myself being politely refused a job; they’d tell me I was fighting a tough battle and wouldn’t be able to concentrate on a job, so I should choose between the two. I’m still being refused jobs, but I will not give up. I’m confident I’ll find my way.”
 
Speed Post again
 
Shayara Bano, a graduate, was married to an Allahabad boy. From day one, she was told she is not good looking and not needed. She was made to undergo seven abortions, and at one point, when she was left extremely weak, the boy’s family refused to bear her medical expenses. She was abandoned at the Moradabad railway station and her family was told to take her back. On reaching home, she was divorced via Speed Post. The husband continues to keep the two children she bore him.
 
“Leaders of the AIMPLB met my father and explained him that this is tarnishing the image of our community and religion. Fighting such a baseless thing would take us nowhere. So we should withdraw our petition. He was told to think and inform the leaders. The leaders kept calling us to withdraw for months. They told us the demerits of bringing the whole matter into the public domain,” she says.
 
Now, she has enrolled for an MBA and is determined to gain custody of her kids once she is financially independent.
 
“It’s not easy,” she says. “There’s this constant pressure to convince us that the supreme court verdict is no victory. The pressure is invisible. The looks, conduct and expressions of people convey that we are on the wrong side of the community.”
 
Force multiplier
 
Zakia Soman would be a familiar name to those who remember the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan’s fight to have the Haji Ali shrine in Mumbai opened to women. A lawyer herself, she however had herself represented for the triple talaq case by lawyer Anand Grover. Facing threats, she says, is part of the process, the struggle.
 
“Of course, the maulanas curse me,” she says. “They put forward my personal life and try to prove that how useless I am. I have been fighting this and many other battles for the rights of women.”
 
She says the practices are ages old and, since the community is not as well-educated as some others, Muslim women have very little awareness of their rights. Anything imposed as ‘religious’ is followed without question, she says. Even if they suffer, they are unwilling to come forward and speak about it.
 
As far as threats go, she got some phone calls and pressure tactics were also applied. But she and her organisation did not relent. Of those who have brought pressure, she says: “Even to this day, they try to use anything that can affect the image of a woman. It’s just that one has to stay strong.” 

 
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(The article appears in the September 16-30, 2017 issue of Governance Now)
 
 

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