‘Change creators’ started movement or empowering women in India

Among the world’s Muslim women, there are some remarkable change creators, such as the two Indian Muslim women who started a movement of empowering women in India in 2007. The movement for changes in family laws resulted in the formation of the organization, Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement).

Under the leadership of two women, Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Safia Niaz, thousands of women took on the herculean task of battling against inhumane practices such as child marriage, polygamy and the abolition of the male right to divorce without any legal recourse for women.

These women found that the struggle against reforms for Muslim family laws, called Personal Laws in India, is “mired in patriarchy, politics and conservatism.”

These women’s struggle has been against the rise of Hindu communalism, called Hindutva, and against the patriarchy within the Muslim communities, practised as part of Islam. For example, a leading Muslim organization, the All India Personal Law Board, is led by men and has dominated any discussion on the implementation and reform of Muslim family laws.

In 2005, the government of India recognized the dire situation of Muslims and initiated research, the Sachar Committee, which collected information on the socio-economic status of the Muslims. The conclusion was that Indian Muslims fared worse than other socio-religious communities on issues of access to health, education, credit and employment.

With the formation of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, women became directly involved in creating change for themselves. In 2013, the BMMA conducted a national study with over 4,500 women from various states, and the findings were that Indian Muslim women wanted reform of the family laws. The BMMA took on the struggle against current laws that allowed polygamy and the “triple talak.” The triple talak is a cruel practice that allows a man to state three times in one sitting that he divorces his wife, and she is divorced with no legal recourse.

The BMMA’s advocacy in 2017 resulted in the Supreme Court’s ruling that this form of divorce is unconstitutional. The women had to put up with men’s criticism that they had deprived a man’s religiously sanctioned “right.”

In 2014, BMMA drafted a reformed Muslim Family Law, with plans for legal changes.

The changes are for an end to unilateral divorce, polygamy and temporary forms of marriage; to raise the age of marriage to 21; to have both parents be guardians of their children; and for an equal distribution of property.

What is of significance is that many of these changes are against the “accepted” religious family laws. This is a radical move as many Muslims believe in the “sanctity” of these laws, but BMMA is arguing that the Qur’an teaches gender equality.

Along with advocating for reform of religious family laws, the BMMA values its country’s constitution for its rights, as well as valuing the fundamentals of secularism. India’s secularism is simply the belief that the state should not foster any one religion, being non-religious while protecting the religious rights of all its citizens.

As a Canadian Muslim woman, I feel great empathy for the organization’s struggle as it is similar to what we faced here in Canada. It is true that the struggle in India is on a much larger scale, but the impact on women is the same.

In Canada, as believing women, we found that all religious family laws were unfair to women. It was no easy task to convince the provincial government to disallow the use of unfair religious family laws in family arbitration, and it took over two years to have the provincial government change the laws.

What is heartwarming is that the BMMA and our organization, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, are geographically miles apart but have agreed that the Islamic values of kindness, compassion, justice and gender equality should be the framework for changes in the laws. Both organizations’ membership is comprised of women of faith but who firmly believe in gender equality and justice.

One example shared between Canadian and Indian Muslims women is their clear position against polygamy. In India, over 91 per cent spoke out against polygamy.

The BMMA survey showed that a polygamous marriage causes “tremendous emotional trauma, it affects the woman’s sense of self-respect and dignity as a human being.” Fifty per cent of women in polygamous marriages spoke of depression, and 84 per cent said polygamy should be outlawed. As far as I know, the only Indians practising polygamy are the Muslims and not the Hindus.

The BMMA is basing its objections on the reading of the Qur’anic verses that do allow polygamy under certain circumstances, but the final directive is that it is best to be monogamous.

In Canada, although polygamy is a criminal offence, there are some religious communities, such as the Mormons, who practise polygamy as a religious right. Unfortunately, the governments have not taken a clear position and have not charged polygamous men.

Some Canadian Muslim men are secretly practising polygamy, and nothing is being done about it by either the government or by Muslim communities themselves.

Canadian Muslims cannot argue on religious grounds that it is the right of men to engage in polygamy, and the secret practice needs to be exposed by Muslims themselves. We can learn from the research in India of the harm done, and the sooner we do, the better for women and their children.

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