A missed opportunity

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board at its Bangalore session vows to fight attempts to tamper with Muslim personal laws governed by the Shariat.

ALTHOUGH much debate and some signs of change were expected at the 14th convention of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board in Bangalore on October 28 and 29, the meeting turned out to be a tame affair. Even important matters such as the "triple talaq" issue did not come up for discussion. Rather, the message from the meeting, which was attended by 90 members of the Board and 350 special invitees representing Muslim organisations from across the country, was that the Muslim community would fight any a ttempt, from within or without, to tamper with its personal laws (governed by the Shariat); that the community wanted the status quo on the Babri Masjid site, and it would not tolerate any moves to at change the basic structure and character of th e Indian Constitution.

The Board, the highest religious authority of the Muslim community in India, discussed the standardisation of the nikahnama, the contract signed by the bride and bridegroom to solemnise a marriage, and the introduction of a contract clause in Muslim marr iages in order to provide extra protection to women. Despite the liberal bent of mind of the Board's current Chairman, Maulana Mujahidul Islam Qasmi, the years of debate within the community and the Board, and five hours' deliberations at the Bangalore m eeting, there was no consensus. A draft nikahnama prepared by a five-member, all-male sub-committee did not find favour at the convention. According to a Board member, the draft "did not fully achieve the objective of the marriage contract" and was retur ned to the committee to "introduce the necessary changes and safeguards before it was presented again for debate".

Women members of the board, such as Dr. Hasina Hashia, Assistant Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, and Tahaniat, a representative of the Shariat Protection Committee of Hyderabad, though disappointed, hoped that the Board would soon adopt "a standard, f oolproof and conditional nikahnama". But quite a few of the women members felt that the issue of amendments to the nikahnama was back to square one.

There seems little chance now that the conditional nikahnama, where both partners, among other things, list conditions before solemnising their marriage, drafted after extensive meetings between Muslim women activists from Mumbai such as Uzma Nahid and t he ulemas (Muslim religious heads), would ever be implemented. The Board had passed a resolution at its 13th session in Mumbai in October 1999 that it would accept the proposed draft with minor changes. But later it changed its mind, appointed a sub-comm ittee and came up with its own draft, which was discussed in Bangalore.

The Board's draft did not find favour with either male or female members. Uzma Nahid, a member of the Board, has been highly critical and called it "inadequate". She is reported to have said that it was "substandard and poorly drafted, having been prepar ed in haste." She is quoted as saying: "In our nikahnama we had suggested the inclusion of an advocate during the nikah (marriage). The (Board's) draft has only mentioned this as an option, which defeats the very purpose of our suggestion. The Shariat pa nchayats (family courts) have failed to safeguard the interests of women. In 90 per cent of the cases, women could not express or explain their problems to the panchayats as they had no female member."

THE debate on nikahnama was initially triggered by the Shah Bano case, in which the Supreme Court ordered the former husband of a Muslim woman to pay her lifelong maintenance. The Muslim Personal Law Board took the stand that such an order was against th e Shariat and an interference in Muslim personal law. The court ruling was nullified with the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. Later, after a comprehensive study of women living in Muslim-dominated slums of Mumbai and other citie s, Muslim women activists gave feedback on matrimonial problems confronting Muslim women. The study helped draft the conditional nikahnama, which they submitted to the Board.

A Board member told Frontline after the meeting that it was "still resisting the legitimate demands of Muslim women, who know their Koranic rights and want to be liberated from medieval interpretations of the Koran". He added that the draft that t he women activists had submitted had nothing un-Islamic about it. "Since marriage is a contract in Islam standard contract conditions can be drawn up and signed by both partners at the time of marriage. A woman is as much entitled as a man to lay down co nditions. For example, she can lay down a condition that her husband will not take a second wife," he said. According to him, if these conditions were incorporated into a standard nikahnama it would to a large extent mitigate the problems faced by Muslim women in India.

Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait, president of the Indian National League and one of the founder members of the Board, told Frontline that it was felt during the Bangalore deliberations that "more thinking was required on the subject of nikahnama." Sait was categorical that if at all there was to be a conditional nikahnama, it should be short; otherwise it would make the issue more complicated.

The proposal for an undertaking by the bridegroom not to give triple talaq in one sitting was not discussed. Under this contract, the bridegroom would have to give an undertaking that if for some reason he had to resort to divorce he would do it over thr ee sittings spread over the period of three menstrual cycles, as has been stipulated in the Shariat.

Sait said that most ulemas in the country were in favour of such a proposal. "We have to make people understand the laws. Misuse should be avoided," he added. According to many Muslim women activists, this was easier said than done.

Another issue that was debated in Bangalore was polygamy. Most members felt that tinkering with it would be a direct interference in the Shariat. A few members felt that several Muslim countries had enacted legislation restricting the taking of more than one wife. There was also no consensus on whether a husband should seek the permission of his first wife before taking a second or additional wife.

Many of the members did not agree with the reforms in Muslim marriage laws (such as a ban on polygamy) implemented in countries such as Morocco, Jordan, Iran, Syria, Turkey and even Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to Sait: "Turkey or any other country cannot be an example for us. We have to follow the Shariat, which is the divine law in total. Those who dilute it or give it their own interpretation are un-Islamic." When asked if Turkey's decision to ban triple talaq made it un-Islamic, Sait answered in the affirmative.

K.M. Khan, a Congress(I) Rajya Sabha member, said: "Muslim personal law has not failed in protecting women. It is the wrong interpretation that has caused problems." Khan admitted that the plight of economically weaker Muslim women had prompted the Board to apply its mind to "prepare a draft marriage certificate that was free of ambiguity and would not cause problems in the law courts."

THE Bangalore Declaration, which was released at the conclusion of the meet, criticised the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government for deflecting public attention from real issues such as poverty and unemployment by raising non-issues such as "I ndianisation of Islam and Christianity". On the issue of the Babri Masjid, the Board, after examining the progress of the Liberhan Commission, said that it had formed a committee to monitor the Commission's proceedings and to make representations to the Board. Members criticised the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for its recent call to build a Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. "It is in contempt of the Allahabad High Court order."

The Board set up a seven-man committee to monitor the proceedings and recommendations of the Constitution Review Panel. The committee will present the objections or concerns of the Muslim community to the panel.

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