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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 22, May 23, 2015

Times have Changed, We Must Move Forward

Friday 22 May 2015


by Rushda Siddiqui

Denied by Allah by Noor Zaheer; Vitasta Publishing House, New Delhi; pages 162; Price: Rs 250. ISBN 978-93-82711-58-2

The Muslims in India are a minority community. They have been socially, politically and economically marginalised and over a period of time stigmatised for belonging to a particular religion. In most parts of the country, the terror of communal violence has forced them to live in ghettos. As the country rolls into the sixth decade of independence, there has been a steady increase in the violence and discrimi-nation of the minorities leading to a rise in the number of ghettos.

From 2005 to date, the Sachar Committee Report remains a yardstick to assess the impact of communal practices by the state and non-state on the community. It documents a systematic pattern of economic, political and social marginalisation and impoverishment of the largest minority in India, the Muslims.

One of the demands of the successive Hindutva movements has been the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code. As things stand, there are different laws governing rights relating to property and otherwise in personal matters like marriage, divorce, maintenance, adoption and inheritance for different communities in India. The debate regarding the Uniform Civil Code is one to replace the personal laws based on the scriptures and customs of each major religious community in the country with a common set governing every citizen. The politics around the Shah Bano case of 1985 brought fundamentalists of every hue to the fore. The demand of the women’s movements seeking civil laws protecting women from discrimination was taken up in the war between the fundamentalists and politicised the atmosphere to such an extent that successive governments have failed to come up with a solution.

It is against this backdrop of communal violence and identity based politics that the work by Noor Zaheer assumes special significance. Rising above communal politics, Noor has valiantly pointed out that the Muslims in India need to re-evaluate themselves. As an activist and a Muslim, she highlights the ills of the religious practices in India that affect women adversely. The cause for the plight of Muslim women is more internal than external.

The Muslims of India carry multiple baggages. They see themselves as a legacy of the medieval ruling elite, and vanguards of a religion whose interpretation has always been varied. Apart from history, other factors that unfavourably affect the Muslims are Muslim Personal Law, the dogmatism of the fundamentalists and the practice of importing the worst practices from other parts of the world.

Using just one institution, that of marriage, Noor documents the plight of women suffering under customs and practices that take away any ray of hope for women caught in the web. Ironically, the injustices suffered by the women have a religious sanction. Be it through the Quran or the Hadith or the various sharias, the systems of oppression have grown over time. Over a period of time, they have taken away the human rights of a woman as well as her dignity. In the sixty years since independence, Muslims have not attempted any reform of the civil and personal laws that govern them. If we take just the issue of marriages and divorces, there has been an increase in the types of marriages, but none guarantees social or economic or even physical security for the woman.

There is no denying that religions of all hues are patriarchal. Islam is no different. It understands women as inferior and weak. It does not see women as being equal to men, and as a consequence the Quran, the Hadith and the shariahs take decisions that do not allow gender equality. Eyewitness testimonies in cases of rape, murder or any other crime go in the ratio of four women to one man. The inequality crosses into the laws of inheritance where a woman inherits only a fourth of her ancestral wealth if she has a brother, and her male relatives are entitled to bigger shares than her.

In the case of marriage too, a popularly mistaken concept is that of mehr. For reasons best known to fundamentalists, mehr is explained as ‘dowry’ paid by the man to the woman. Conceptually, it is a provision of economic security for the bride which she is entitled to regardless of her marital status. By equating it with either alimony or dowry, men have a tendency to collect the latter and get away from paying the former.

The adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely fits the case of the Indian Muslim men to the letter. They have managed to manipulate customs, religious texts and systems to increase their powers. Their growth comes at the cost of the subjugated and exploited women. By striking out the statement that women are equal to men in the nikahnama, the custodians of the religion ensure that the woman is never able to seek divorce, alimony or justice in a marriage. By introducing the institutions of Halalanikah and Muta’h marriages, women are forced take on relationships against their will. Yes, there is an argument that the Quran or the Hadith or even the shariah do not allow for simple triple talaq, or Halala marriages to be fixed, but the practice shows otherwise. Khula is not a privilege granted to the woman. In the case of Khula too, the woman can ask for a divorce, but it is still the prerogative of the man to grant it.

The book discusses Halala and Mut’ah marriages in detail along with the problems of talaq (triple talaq) and Khula. All institutions have a religious sanction and the practitioners of the religion have found loopholes enough to exploit the institutions to be loaded in favour of men. In the process the women have lost their dignity, honour, economic and social security. As opting out of the religion is not an option, the women continue to suffer indignity at the hands of the custodians of a religion that saw them as a problem to begin with.

Like every book, Denied by Allah has its pros and cons. What goes against it is the lack of adequate footnoting and mention that the book is based on primary research. The author interviewed hundreds of women, scholars and maulvis, then documented over a hundred and sixty cases in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to bring out a book that contains real case stories. Instead of adopting an unconventional framework of analysis, the author chose the empirical research method path to highlight the need for a civil law that should be over and above religious laws. The case for decolonising the Muslims and freeing them from the shackles of personal and religious laws have been argued, though not in a manner a lawyer or a social scientist would argue. There is a passionate appeal for reform that is more emotional than one would like.

Having said that, it is a book that I would recommend to lay readers and academics. After the works of Ahmed Rashid, Noor Zaheer’s book is the best I have come across that combines primary research with an understanding of policies and practices. It is as unputdownable as Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban. It is invaluable for all trying to understand the problems within the Indian Muslim society. The translations, historical references, interpretations given by Noor enrich the understanding of the religion, the practices and the corruption that engulfs the Muslim community in India today. The book debunks a lot of myths and rhetoric about Islam that is propagated by the spokesmen for it.

It takes a lot of courage to write objectively on a subject that challenges the self-appropriated legitimacy of the fundamentalists. I would like to join Noor in the appeal for Muslim women to be treated as human beings capable of rationality and intelligence. The religion and religious texts have been interpreted and re-interpreted over time. Even the Muslim personal law being followed today is based on the interpretation of the Quran and shariah under Aurangzeb. It is time for us to acknowledge that times have changed and we need to move forward rather than backwards.

The reviewer is a historian who has specialised in West Asian affairs.

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