Fighting for Imrana

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

The case of Imrana, the woman who is punished by leaders of her community for being raped by her father-in-law, unites women's organisations in the battle for justice.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Muzaffarnagar

SHE is frail and barely able to speak. Her eyes look weary from behind the veil. Sometimes seated, sometimes lying on a hard cot with her five children huddled around her, she darts fearful looks at the door, fearful of the hordes of television cameramen and press photographers who have been barging into her modest home to take pictures of her. Her eldest daughter, who is eight years old, tries to draw her attention in vain. Imrana, all of 28 years, the wife of Noor Ilahi, rickshaw-puller and part-time brick-kiln worker of Kukda village in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, suffered the worst humiliation when she was raped by her father-in-law in June and was then instructed by the village panchayat to sever relations with Noor Ilahi.

Her case has now become a rallying point for many. Some organisations have taken the opportunity to highlight the plight of women, others like the Bharatiya Janata Party have jumped into the fray to hector the minority community about personal law reforms and the need for a uniform civil code.

"What have we done to deserve this? Hasn't she gone through enough with her name all over the newspapers and television," asks Shabana, Imrana's sister, even as the women glower in anger, helpless about the steady influx of visitors making their way through the narrow entrance to the semi-pucca house.

Imrana's family members say belligerently that they will abide by the Shariat. If there is a fatwa, she will obey it and she cannot go against her Mazhab and the Deen, they say. These were the very same words mouthed a few months ago by Guriya of Mundali village in Meerut district when she was made to "choose" between two husbands - one who had gone missing in the Kargil War and then subsequently returned, and the other whom she married when she gave up her husband for dead. The choice was made before religious clerics and a prominent national television channel. Despite assurances from various groups that they would support her choice, Guriya finally made her choice, against her wish.

Kukda, located 5 kilometres from Muzaffarnagar town, is a large village with a sizable Muslim population. In fact, the Muslim population in Muzaffarnagar district is supposed to average between 35 and 40 per cent though some would optimistically put it at 50 per cent. This is part of the sugarcane belt in western Uttar Pradesh. Land ownership is concentrated mainly among the Jats. A few upper-caste groups and fewer Muslims own land. The large majority of Dalits, Maalis and Muslims work as agricultural labour. Sugarcane is grown almost throughout the year, and given the ample supply of canal water, the crop is assured and the owners devote their time to activities that people say have resulted in a high rate of crime in the region. The area is sometimes referred to along with Meerut, Saharanpur, Bulandshahr and Ghaziabad as the "Wild West".

It is in this situation that caste panchayats flourish among all communities. The panchayat is called "Chaudrahat Jamaana" (the term Chaudrahat originates from Chaudhary, which is a common Jat title) and is often a means of establishing authority within the community.

In Kukda, the Muslim homes are located at the end of the village, signifying their economic backwardness. In stark contrast to the bigger dwellings and wide pathways at the entrance to the village, the Muslim dwellings are small and situated in congested, narrow lanes.

At the time of the rape, Imrana was at Charthawal village, in her husband's home. Noor Ilahi was away at work at a brick kiln near Delhi when his father criminally assaulted her. She reported the matter to her mother-in-law, who advised her to remain quiet but assured her that justice would be done. She rebuked the husband. However, word got around and Imrana's brothers came from Kukda village, which is not far from Charthawal, on June 11 and beat up the father-in-law. The incident became known to the entire village now. The Ansari (the community of weavers to which Imrana belongs) panchayat met on June 13. The local clergy was present at the panchayat and the leaders declared her marriage to Noor Ilahi haraam or illegal. The logic was that as she had sexual relations (the lack of consensus was not an issue) with the father, she could only be her husband's mother. After the verdict was given, she was told to go to her parental village.

It was at this juncture that women's groups and non-governmental organisations entered the picture and tried hard to reverse the "grossly unjust" verdict. They got Imrana's medical examination done and also got her statement recorded under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code . As far as the police were concerned, Imrana had charged her father-in-law, Ali Mohammad, with rape. He had, according to her, pointed a Tamancha or a locally made pistol at her youngest child, a one-and-a-half-year-old boy, and threatened to kill him if she did not succumb.

On June 24, entering into the picture for the first time was the Darul Uloom, the school of Islamic instruction and teaching located in Deoband, not very far from Muzaffarnagar. In reply to what should be done in such circumstances, the Darul Uloom, issued a fatwa posing the various possibilities. The fatwa was not in Imrana's name, and neither was it registered. It was a general opinion in response to a specific query but it included the interpretation given by the Ansari panchayat and Shamim Ahmed, the Imam of Charthawal, that her marriage to her husband was illegal.

On June 30, activists of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) led by its national president Subhashini Ali, along with several local organisations such as Disha and Astitiva (both NGOs), held a demonstration in Muzaffarnagar demanding justice for Imrana. Women from the nearby districts of Bijnore and Saharanpur and even from Delhi joined in the protest. Interestingly, emboldened by the protest, one woman came forward to narrate publicly her tale of woe, which was not very different from that of Imrana's. As for Imrana herself, she stated that she would stay with her husband and her children. She was to retract her statement later. When Frontline met her, she said she was in a state of shock and that she would do exactly what the Shariat had in store for her. She also wished her father-in-law would be imprisoned for at least 20 years for what he did to her.

Whether the Darul Uloom issued a fatwa ordering Imrana not to have relations with her husband is unclear, but what is disturbing is the response the Darul Uloom's position elicited. While the All India Muslim Personal Law Board upheld the edict and held that she had the right to marry anyone she wished, other than her husband, the recently formed All India Muslim Women's Personal Law Board condemned it. Shaista Amber, president of the AIMWPLB, told Frontline over telephone from Lucknow that whatever decision came from any cleric or institution should be in the interest of both the Koran and humanity.

"There are equal rights in the Koran for women but it is the interpretation which is unjust. We would also like to know from which Sura of the Koran they have issued the fatwa, " she said. She rebutted the charge by a section of the AIMPLB, which had denied that the incident of rape had taken place. "How then was a fatwa issued if rape had not been committed?" she asked. In fact, within a section of the local media and parts of the national media, a canard had been spread that there was some property dispute behind Imrana's rape charge.

Barring the Left parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in particular, which took a stand against the issuance of such a fatwa and its interpretation, which they saw was clearly anti-democratic and anti-women, no other party took up the issue directly. The BJP saw in this an opportunity to talk about the need for a uniform civil code. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav played it safe and reportedly stated that the decision that Imrana's relationship with her husband was "haraam" must have been correct as it had been taken by learned religious leaders. The Congress too refrained from condemning the community panchayat and the issuance of the fatwa from Deoband. When Tehriq, a Lucknow-based organisation working on violence among the urban poor, especially Muslim women, approached the State Women's Commission, it was told that as the matter concerned "them", that is Muslim women, the Commission could not intervene beyond a point. Says Naish of Tehriq: "We were shocked. They told us, `yeh aap logon ka maamla hai'."

Girija Vyas, National Commission for Women Chairperson, met Imrana for over an hour only to emerge and have Imrana announce that she would abide by the Shariat. She told reporters that if Imrana received the fatwa, she would accept it. Girija Vyas refused to get involved in an argument over the legitimacy of the fatwa.

Naish said that there was constant pressure on Imrana to change her initial stand that she would stay with her children and husband. She said that her organisation was opposed to decisions being taken by Shariat courts. "Are they going to decide who is a good woman and who is not?" she asked. Shaheen from the Saharanpur-based NGO Disha told Frontline that it was not necessary that Imrana obeyed any fatwa. Shaheen, who along with others such as Rehana Adib of Astitiva, was instrumental in convincing Imrana to undergo a medical examination, said that caste panchayats and their edicts were a nuisance in western Uttar Pradesh. Such panchayats were not restricted to Muslims alone, but were prevalent among all communities.

Caste and community panchayats are known to target the poor and the vulnerable. Imrana's case is a perfect example of this.

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