By enforcing notices under SMA, govt telling interfaith couples to convert or wait endlessly, says petitioner Nida Rehman

Notices of marriages under SMA intended to safeguard the interests of the two parties to the marriage, but for some years, they have been used to prevent, often forcibly, inter-faith and inter-caste marriages

Jyoti Punwani March 05, 2021 20:39:21 IST
By enforcing notices under SMA, govt telling interfaith couples to convert or wait endlessly, says petitioner Nida Rehman

Representational image. Unsplash@the_travelsmokey

Muslim women have for long challenged the Muslim Personal Law in court.

But now, a young Muslim woman has challenged a Central law that applies to all communities. Last month, the Centre was forced to reply to her petition in the Delhi High Court.

Nida Rehman and Anr vs State of NCT of Delhi and Ors asks the court to strike down sections 6 and 7 of the Special Marriage Act (SMA), which make it mandatory for the marriage officer to display at a conspicuous place in his office the month’s notice necessary for marriages under the Act, so that anyone can object to the marriage.

These provisions were intended to safeguard the interests of the two parties to the marriage, but for some years now, they have been used to prevent, often forcibly, inter-faith and inter-caste marriages in the country.

Arguing that religious marriages have no such provisions, the petition urges that these sections be declared unconstitutional since they violate Article 14 'equal protection of laws', and Article 21, 'right to life and personal liberty'.

From Shehnaz Sheikh in 1984 to Shayara Bano in 2016, all the women who challenged Muslim Personal Law faced disapproval from their communities, but Hindutvavadis hailed them as heroines. It is unlikely, however, that 26-year-old Nida Rehman’s petition will please either community.

Not that she cares.

Nida Rehman breaks the stereotype of a Muslim woman. She grew up in a Muslim area in Delhi, where mixed-faith couples are hard to find. Yet, she not only fell in love with her Hindu college classmate but also married him, despite the objections of both their parents.

An MSc in Zoology, Nida was the only Muslim in her class. It was her Hindu classmates who conducted the haldi and mehendi ceremonies for her marriage last October, two of them coming from out of town for the low-key affair.

The February riots that took place in Delhi in 2020 neither affected Nida’s resolve to marry a Hindu, nor, her friendship with these classmates.

"I always saw him as an individual, his religion didn’t matter," she says about her husband Mohan Lal.

When the Delhi riots broke out, Nida was in her class. Her family told her to stay back with a relative in a safer area. "My classmate and I were texting each other through the riots," recalls Nida.

"She lives in a Hindu mohalla across the road from my home. She would send a message that people were screaming 'the Muslims are coming'. I would reply that my family was being told 'the Hindus are coming'," says Nida.

Nida believes the rioters were outsiders and were instigated by politicians.

Because her father was a well-known teacher in the locality, the local policemen kept informing him about the movements of Hindu mobs.

"They (the police) also expressed their helplessness at not being able to take action against the mobs," says Nida.

"This so-called Hindu-Muslim hatred is all just on TV," she adds, pointing out that the few Hindu families that live in her area were protected by the Muslims.

Though Nida's neighbourhood was targeted by Hindu rioters, her parents did not use the riot as a stick against her marriage to a Hindu man.

In fact, some of the stereotypes were first broken by Nida’s parents, both of whom are teachers, and who gave Nida the freedom rare for daughters brought up in community strongholds.

Her father has been supportive of her aspirations to study. And, when she told him about her desire to marry Mohan, he quietly reminded her about her plans to sit for the IAS exam. Her mother ruled it out altogether. Yet, neither of them forbid her from meeting him. They only advised her to "regard him only as a friend". They also did not rush to find a Muslim boy for her.

Finally, what forced Nida’s hand was the COVID-19 -induced lockdown when offers of marriage started pouring in for the young woman confined at home, and Nida felt she had to leave home before any of them were finalised.

Contrary to the stereotype of the emotional young woman who impetuously runs away, Nida first looked for help on the internet.

"I was sure that in modern India, there would be some organisation which could help couples like us," she says.

She found Dhanak of Humanity, a Delhi-based group that has, since its founding in 2012, helped 1,300 inter-faith and inter-caste couples marry under the Special Marriage Act.

Why didn’t she take the easy way out and opt for an instant religious marriage?

"In 10 years, religion never came between us. Honestly, it barely matters to me whether he does puja or namaz. And forcible conversion? Never," she says.

The "force" comes from the government, says Nida.

"It’s like the government is telling us: you want to marry outside your faith? Then change your religion, or prepare to wait endlessly till all the hurdles under the SMA are cleared."

While discussing the anomalies of the SMA, Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak told her that it could be challenged.

"I decided I would do so," recalls Nida, and filed her petition in September 2020. Even though the display of the marriage notice created no problem for her, she decided not to withdraw the petition.

Though the parents of both the groom and the bride didn’t attend the wedding, they have accepted the marriage and one another.

In fact, they had come to know each other earlier, when they had accompanied their children to Chennai to appear for an exam. They were unaware of the surprise their children had planned for them.

Though the couple is firm on not converting, their erstwhile neighbours assume otherwise. In her Muslim locality, it is assumed Mohan has converted, whereas, in Nida’s in-laws’ home, she is a typical Hindu bahu. And this is why this brave woman has refused to be photographed for this interview.

However, it is only her father who visits the home she and Mohan have built for themselves in a rented room.

"He can’t stay away from me," she laughs.

"On the rest of the family, religion has too strong a hold," she adds.

It is to escape this stranglehold that the couple have decided that their child will be given a name not identifiable with either religion and will be taught what is right and wrong, rather than the tenets of either religion.

Nida knows this would upset both sets of parents, but the IAS aspirant says: "I’m attached to them, but I’m not an emotional fool."

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