Woman’s right to divorce

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Zarina Bhatty.

ZARINA BHATTY, with a schoolgoing daughter, obtained a divorce through khula (a form of divorce initiated by the wife) when she was in her twenties. It was not easy. Hailing from an educated family in Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh, she was born in Lucknow, has the popular poet Javed Akhtar among her cousins, and the noted poet Jan Nisar Akhtar was an uncle. She had studied in the United Kingdom and taken on various jobs to make ends meet while her husband Hayat tried to find his feet in the world of academics. Back in India, she taught at Delhi University and went on to become the president of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies. Yet, obtaining the divorce was neither easy nor instant. Beyond the stigma in society, which always holds a woman responsible for a marital breakdown, Zarina’s case was more complicated simply because she intended to settle down with another man. Hence the need to obtain khula, a woman’s right to single, irrevocable divorce. Her husband would not give her talaq because he would then have to give her mehr (a mandatory payment) and maintenance. So, she had to initiate divorce proceedings herself. She has penned down her experience in the book Purdah to Piccadilly, released recently in New Delhi.

Says Zarina Bhatty: “As a Muslim woman, it was very difficult for me to seek divorce, unlike a Muslim man who could divorce at will by saying ‘divorce you’ three times. For a Muslim woman, it is very difficult to demand divorce without the husband’s consent.” She recalls that her husband was angry when faced with the divorce request from her. Having grown up in a patriarchal set-up, he took it as personally humiliating. The divorce through khula did come about though. Zarina writes in the book: “One day, he called a friend and gave him a piece of paper on which he had written three times as per the requirement of the Muslim Personal Law, ‘I divorce my wife Zarina by khula’.”

Khula, she clarifies, “means that divorce is granted at the request of the wife and in such a case, the husband is not legally bound to pay mehr or maintenance. It is only if a husband initiates a divorce that he is bound to pay the agreed mehr.”

Although she went on to marry soon after obtaining khula, the experience left an indelible mark. Even today, when she either writes or talks of the khula, it appears that the wound is fresh.

In response to a query as to why khula is not so well known or talked about among Muslim women, she says: “As for khula not being talked about, the continuing social disapproval of divorce (for which the woman is made responsible anyway) is responsible. Besides, the economic dependence of most women on their husbands and the Muslim Personal Law’s provision whereby the children can be taken away by the father after divorce works as a deterrent to khula. Women resist asking for khula. Many uneducated women do not even know of it and it is not in the interest of men to publicise it. It is to their advantage to keep their women ignorant of their rights.”

She also laments that it requires the husband’s approval for khula to take place. Incidentally, the husband, as per law, cannot say no to khula, nor can he inquire into the reasons why a woman wants it. “ Khula requires the husband’s consent, while triple talaq does not require the wife’s consent; it can be given unilaterally. Also, in khula, the husband is not required to pay mehr, but if the husband pronounces talaq then he is required to give the mehr.”

Hardened by the experience, she comes across as a feminist today and believes that a uniform civil code, just like the criminal code, is the way forward for society. “I firmly believe that the Muslim Personal Law is the biggest stumbling block to women’s progress in Muslim society. It is for the younger, educated and enlightened Muslims to support a Common Indian Personal Law, which should be culled out by taking the best aspects from other community laws, including the Hindu Code Bill, which is not fully equitable.”

She also questions the clerics’ interpretation that the provisions of the Muslim Personal Law are the word of God. “They do not know Arabic, they should be exposed,” she states. She is not ready to give up hope though, arguing that the moment we give up hope, we concede defeat. She finds hope in the winds of change blowing across Muslim society. “Muslim society is also changing like the rest of Indian society but very slowly and, unfortunately, ‘identity politics’, resulting in Muslim fundamentalism, coupled with strong patriarchy has made it slower.” As proof of change within, she cites greater acceptance of divorce. “The social stigma against divorce is not as strong now as it was in my time and ‘son’ worship has reduced among educated urban Muslims, although it does continue in rural and uneducated sections. Unfortunately, modern technology is also unfriendly to women, as foeticide further strengthens the prejudice against females.” She is firmly convinced that Muslim society will get better with “education and exposure”.

Common customs

But in India, is not culture almost always paramount and religion subservient? There are so many social customs common to Muslims and Hindus. And Zarina, after her second marriage to a Christian, discovered that fair complexion was valued in that community too and that the girl child was not exactly welcomed. “In all societies, for ordinary people, culture is more important than religion. In fact, many cultural practices are often understood and followed as religious ones because of ignorance. For example, in the Oudh region, to which I belong, it is customary to breastfeed a girl for one year and nine months and a boy for two years and three months. It is only a patriarchal practice, giving more value to male life. My own mother followed this practice, though there is no mention of it in the Quran or the Hadith. As almost all Muslims are converts from Hinduism, they accepted Islam as interpreted by the mullahs, most of whom do not have a good knowledge of the scriptures. The new religion did not change their everyday life much. For instance, in India, there is the dowry system borrowed from Hindus, while in Saudi Arabia, bride price is practised. It is common to be influenced by the dominant culture. Indians are no exception,” says Zarina. She herself attracted criticism when she first acted in a play by Ismat Chughtai, as there was a prejudice against girls from “good” families being seen onstage.

When she was growing up, Muslim society emphasised seclusion of girls, with the elders instilling the need to speak softly so as not to be heard by strangers or visiting men at home. Did she not find it strange to be so confined in a religion where Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet, was a renowned businesswoman? Zarina agrees that patriarchal forces have been dominant in the Muslim discourse of life in the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar belt. “One hardly ever talks of Khadija, who was a businesswoman, a widow, and older in age to the Prophet. Hazrat Ayesha, the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, even commanded an army. Did these women wear the burqa? Indian Muslim society today is totally a male construct which gives men superiority over women.” Hence the story of Zarina.

Ziya Us Salam