Interview: Bader Sayeed

‘I demand a clear interpretation of Sharia’

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Bader Sayeed. Photo: Ilangovan Rajasekaran

Interview with the lawyer-activist Bader Sayeed.

The lawyer-activist Bader Sayeed in Chennai was in total joy on August 24, the day she turned 71. When Frontline met her at her residence, her cell phone was ringing non-stop. The calls were not only to wish her on her birthday but also to celebrate the landmark verdict of the Supreme Court on instant triple talaq. “It is like the joy that I derive when I sight the moon on the days of Bakr-id and Ramadhan,” said Bader Sayeed, who is also a former member of the Tamil Nadu Assembly. She is one of the Muslim women who have waged a bitter fight against the practice of triple talaq. The first woman to head the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board, in 2002, she created ripples within her faith when she filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in the Madras High Court seeking a direction against qazis issuing triple talaq certificates and for the codification of Muslim personal law. She impleaded herself in the petition on the talaq issue in the Supreme Court. Excerpts from the interview:

It has been a long battle against instant triple talaq. What is your reaction to the Supreme Court judgment?

It is a great and satisfying day for me. When I sought judicial intervention in the early 1990s, I was hounded down. But the plight of innocent Muslim women who were “deserted and dumped” by their husbands prompted me to take a stand against these patriarchal practices, idealised and guarded by the conservative elements within the faith, thus violating the fundamental principles of equality and justice enshrined in the Quran. In spite of constitutional guarantees, Muslim women are subject to discrimination and gender inequality. They have no safeguards against arbitrary divorce and second marriage, resulting in denial of dignity and security. In this context, the Supreme Court judgment is an epoch-making one since it has struck at the very root of this anti-women practice.

What prompted you to take up the battle against instant triple talaq?

Many Muslim women who were victimised by triple talaq at one go had started coming to me for legal aid. A girl who had been admitted to the labour ward in a hospital at about 5 in the morning was given a talaq by her husband at about 1 p.m. the same day. The entire family was devastated and came to me for help. The qazi had issued a certificate of talaq validating the divorce, which is against the law. We are now fighting it in court. The unilateral pronouncement of instant triple talaq has caused inhuman suffering for Muslim women. Divorce, I feel, should be through due intervention of courts of law, which alone would protect the interests of both parties.

After I approached the Madras High Court on the issue, many have approached me to get their grievances redressed through legal means. The non-availability of statistics on the number of victims of talaq should not camouflage the enormity of the issue. The Supreme Court verdict has taken the issue to another level, that is, ensuring an effective deterrent mechanism against arbitrary practices of patriarchy.

A section of Muslims claimed that any change in Sharia would lead to the establishment of a uniform civil code, which they fear might go against the tenets of Muslim personal law. You had sought the intervention of the Madras High Court to codify Muslim personal law and also limit the role of qazis.

Yes. I sought the codification of the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, which governs Muslim life, ranging from religious requirements and responsibilities to personal relationships. I want “exact interpretations” of it on divorce, alimony, polygamy and on other issues concerning women. I also insist that the codification should be in accordance with the tenets of the Quran. Non-codification violates the basic principles of the right to a decent living and consequently the right to life of Muslim women.

I have objected to the practice of qazis issuing talaq certificates, which, in my opinion, has no legal validity. Qazis should function within the confines of the Qazis Act, 1880, which does not empower them to issue certificates of divorce, though this practice is defended stoutly by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. The qazis usurp quasi-judicial powers, routinely validating the arbitrary pronouncements of talaq, causing prejudice and hardship to the victims.

I do not support any demand for a uniform civil code at present. People should not get confused about the demand for the codification of Muslim personal law and the demand for a uniform civil code. What I demand is a clear interpretation of Sharia. It should not be allowed to be misinterpreted and misused to exploit hapless Muslim women. Qazis, maulvis and jamaats should be restrained from interfering in the lives of our women. Muslim women today seek justice under the provisions of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, the Dowry Prohibition Act and many similar Acts that the country has enacted for the welfare of women in general. Hence, any arbitrary action, such as talaq, should be trashed right away.

What is your next step to consolidate this advantage?

I have decided to write to the Tamil Nadu DGP [Director General of Police] enclosing a copy of the Supreme Court judgment asking him to instruct his subordinate officials, especially Station House Officers, to be sensitive while dealing with any marital dispute involving Muslim women. Many SHOs are unaware of the laws Muslims practise and in order to avoid controversies linked to marital disputes, they coerce the girl and her family to accept any settlement the local jamaat or a qazi broker.

Parliament should enact legislation as instructed by the court. The Prime Minister can press a “pause button” on the move for a uniform civil code and instead bring in legislation on issues such as talaq in order to confront the forces of “religious rigidism”.