Twenty five-year-old Salma’s* life crumbled one morning when her husband forced her and her two young children, aged three and two, from their house in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Salma had married in 2010, just after graduating from high school. Her parents were overjoyed when the son of an influential religious leader from their community proposed to her, a humble girl from a poor family. The wedding, she says, was a happy occasion.
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After the wedding, Salma left her parental home and went to live with her husband and his family. Her husband was the imam at the nearby mosque and owned a shop that sold religious books. She busied herself with household chores.
But, in the days that followed, their marriage took an unexpected turn. She says her husband and his family turned violent and began to subject her to constant abuse.
“They would beat me up for the pettiest issues,” Salma says. “My in-laws always felt that I wasn’t worthy of them, and frequently threatened me by saying that my husband would divorce me and marry someone who is equivalent to their status,” she told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview.
At times, she says, the family withheld food and medical care as punishment, even from her children.
Salma didn’t want to worry her parents, so she kept quiet about the abuse.
“One day my father-in-law convinced my husband to divorce me by uttering the word talaq thrice,” she says.
So, a few years into their marriage, Salma’s husband threw her out of the house, using the triple talaq to divorce her.
According to this practice, a Muslim man may divorce his wife by speaking the word “talaq”, which means “I divorce you”, three times in quick succession to her.
The practice has been outlawed in many Muslim majority nations, but is permitted in India under the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937 ( PDF ). According to this act, in matters of personal disputes, the state will not intervene and a religious authority will instead pass judgments.
According to a survey conducted by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a women’s rights advocacy group, which is campaigning against triple talaq, 59 percent of divorced Indian Muslim women were divorced through triple talaq.
Left to fend for herself and her children, Salma turned to the BMMA for support, after hearing about it from friend who is a member.
Salma’s case is just one of those that the BMMA has been highlighting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the hope of drawing attention to the thousands of women rendered destitute because of the practice.
‘Ban on oral divorce’
India does not have a uniform civil code. Every religious community has its own set of laws pertaining to personal issues such as marriage, divorce, property, adoption, inheritance and maintenance. While Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews have separate personal laws , Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs are governed by a single law known as the Hindu Law.
The BMMA has worked in 15 states across India since its establishment in 2007, focusing on socio-economic issues such as the education and livelihoods of women.
The group started an online petition to ban the triple talaq practice. So far, 50,000 Muslim men and women across the country have signed it.
“In the course of our work, we have regularly been approached by our sisters, complaining about mistreatment and misuse of the oral talaq system. In most cases, men go scot-free and believe their action is approved by the Quran,” says Zakia Soman, one of the co-founders of the BMMA.
The BMMA has received several reports of women being divorced by husbands who have sent them a triple talaq message via SMS or other forms of digital media.
“None of the Quranic guidelines of discussion, arbitration, witnesses, specified time period or even a genuine attempt to resolve differences are being followed. In such circumstances, the question of alimony or the rights of children doesn’t arise,” said Zakia in an email to Al Jazeera, explaining why the BMMA is calling for a ban on this type of divorce.
In the course of our work, we have regularly been approached by our sisters, complaining about mistreatment and misuse of the oral talaq system.
‘Figures are false and baseless’
But the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) – a non-governmental organisation that aims to educate Indian Muslims on the protection and application of Islamic laws, disagrees with the BMMA.
Dr Asma Zehra, a member of the core committee of the AIMPLB, says that triple talaq is not one of the most gripping issues facing the Muslim community in India, and that there are many other significant issues that need to be addressed, such as eradicating poverty, and improving education and livelihoods for women.
“The petition and survey figures which are being provided by BMMA are false and baseless,” Zehra says. “If one does not agree with the Muslim Personal Law Board, they are free to get married under the Special Marriage Act.”
The Special Marriage Act of 1954 was enacted by the Indian parliament to provide a special form of marriage for the people of India and all Indian nationals in foreign countries irrespective of one’s religion or faith. It attempts to protect the rights of individuals from different communities who wish to marry and are not permitted by their respective personal laws.
Although Zehra acknowledged that divorce someone via social media may not be the best way to go about it, she says it is still valid under the Muslim personal law.
“India does not need to revisit [it’s] divorce laws,” Zehra says.
And she believes the alternatives may not always be better. “Our judiciary is overburdened. Several women have had to wait for years for their [divorce] cases to be heard. The lengthy legal procedures would only multiply social and economic hardships for women.”
Reform to Muslim personal law
The Shariat Application Act 1937, which states that Muslims will be governed by Islamic laws, does not, however, clearly define the contents of these laws. This means that codified laws do not exist in disputes dealing with personal law and that the law is open to the interpretation of the religious authorities.
This may explain why the Muslim community is often presented with multiple views on many issues, including triple talaq.
“Women are being divorced for the flimsiest of reasons and denied their basic rights. The Muslim Personal Law Board are given a lot of significance by government institutions and seen as the ultimate representatives of Muslims in the country,” says Safia Akhtar, another BMMA member who is working on the triple talaq campaign.
The BMMA has sent a letter to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, demanding that the Muslim Family Law be codified. “Muslim women have never been heard in matters concerning their lives. Certain orthodox and patriarchal men have dominated the debate on rights of Muslim women and have stone-walled any attempt towards reform,” reads the letter, which has been signed by the organisation’s members.
Recently, 35-year-old Shayara Bano, who was divorced via a letter, has asked the Indian Supreme Court to declare the triple talaq practice illegal, as she said that it violates her right to life, personal liberty, equality before the law and prohibition against discrimination – fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian constitution ( PDF ).
The Indian Supreme Court has asked the Indian government to file before it the report of a committee which was formed to look into aspects of personal laws in various religious minorities.
Maneka Gandhi, union minister of the Ministry of Women and Child Development , which deals with the matters of rights, care and protection of women and children in India, stated that she does not want to voice an opinion on the triple talaq practice until a consensus emerges on the issue.
The Indian government established The High Level Committee on the Status of Women ( PDF ) in India in May 2013. The committee recommended a ban on the practice of oral, unilateral and triple talaq in a report published in June 2015.
“It makes wives extremely vulnerable and insecure regarding their marital status,” the report reads.
Salma is happy that the government is taking action.
“It’s the life of a woman that becomes miserable. I want an end to this unilateral divorce practice and my children to get what they deserve,” she says. “Fights take place between a husband and wife, but this is no way to resolve it.”
*Name changed to protect identity.