The recent decision of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) to establish a separate women's wing — to dwell on issues exclusive to women like triple talaq and polygamy — will not bring about any change in the status of Muslim women within the family, but is indicative of the pressure on Muslim clerics to display a semblance of concern on gender issues within the community.
The so-called Kolkata Declaration, released at the conclusion of AIMPLB's 25th conference on 20 November, was keenly awaited given the recent debate over triple talaq and the Uniform Civil Code (UCC). There was, however, no change in AIMPLB's stance as it unanimously passed a resolution saying that triple talaq is sacrosanct, as per the Shariah laws which are divine, and cannot be modified, changed or altered by any person or authority under any circumstances.
Attacked by vocal liberal sections within the Muslim community for holding a brief for patriarchy, AIMPLB’s decision on the new women’s wing does not mark a change in its position on rights for women within the family.
The resolution is undoubtedly not of their own volition but a result of pressure from below. The semblance of a response by the Board to the growing demands of Muslim women for equal rights within the family is also indicative of new pressure groups that have emerged in recent years.
These organisations have ranged from activist groups like Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), who have backed their programmes with solid research, and the All India Muslim Women Personal Board that despite its limited capacity has recently become party in the ongoing case in Supreme Court.
More than six years after four elective seats were allocated to women in AIMPLB in March 2010, the Board’s decision to form a separate wing for women indicates that pressure from progressive forces within the community is far greater now than at the time of the last churn in the mid-1980s following the Shah Bano verdict of the Supreme Court.
Pro-changers of that time were eventually marginalised after the Rajiv Gandhi government sided with conservatives within the community and enacted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act. The decision heralded the process of communalisation of Indian politics as it galvanised the Sangh Parivar into re-launching the Ayodhya agitation that had been abandoned in October 1984, following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
Unlike in the past, the debate for removal of triple talaq has raged for close to a decade with the initiative being taken by progressive Muslim women who decided to treat the treacherous path of questioning the clerics. In a community that is known for poor levels of awareness and coupled with the trajectory of Indian politics towards majoritarianism, the path chosen by groups like the BMMA was daunting because it was often considered a part of the Sangh Parivar’s 'sudharak' agenda for the Muslims.
Indeed, the BMMA has been accused of being in cahoots with the government in undermining minority rights. However, its denunciation of the government initiative on introducing UCC puts paid such charges.
In recent months, the Supreme Court has been seized with a clutch of cases challenging the legal validity of triple talaq and polygamy, beginning with the case filed by Shayara Bano, a woman from Uttarakhand, who was instantaneously divorced. When asked to present its viewpoint, the Centre pleaded in the apex court that it should declare the practices as illegal. In its affidavit, it argued that neither of the practices can be "regarded as essential or integral part of the religion".
Simultaneously, the Law Commission released a questionnaire to assess public opinion on if triple talaq should be abolished. But more contentiously, the Commission also asked if UCC should be introduced. Law panel chairman Justice BS Chauhan (retd) stated that the commission aimed to "begin a healthy conversation about the viability of a uniform civil code".
Statements by BJP ministers and leaders stirred the hornet’s nest because UCC has long been a political objective of the Sangh Parivar. That a common family law has been a constitutional goal listed in the Directive Principles of State Policy enabled the BJP to claim that it was simply pursuing constitutional obligations.
In October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too waded into the controversy by taking up the cause of Muslim “behne” or sisters saying that triple talaq was discriminatory and outlined his government’s position on the issue. Predictably, the AIMPLB reacted negatively to the proposal of the Law Commission and declared what has now been reiterated in Kolkata.
Several non-BJP parties, like Bahujan Samaj Party and Trinamool Congress, have also supported this position and in turn have been accused by Modi and other BJP leaders of indulging in "vote bank politics" by pandering to the conservative sections among Muslims.
By introducing the demand for UCC at this stage, the BJP has mired the pitch for progressive groups in the community as the conservatives led by AIMPLB — which still retains great relevance and support in the community — will hijack the issue and argue that when minority rights are under threat from the Centre, organisations like BMMA are weakening the battle against the government’s plan to marginalise Muslims. Token gestures like formation of a women’s wing will enable them to project a facade of being sensitive towards gender issues.
Ironically, the state of Muslim women, being used as pawns in a political game, will remain as abysmal as it is currently.