A soft-spoken woman, Shayara Bano is an unlikely poster girl for feminism.
But the 35-year-old’s petition in India’s Supreme Court seeking a ban on a practice that is outlawed in several countries – whereby a Muslim man can divorce his wife just by uttering the word “talaq (divorce)” three times – has put her at the forefront of a movement seeking to bring equal rights to women in a largely male-dominated Muslim society.
“I am no crusader. I just don’t want more women to undergo the pain and torture that I have had to face,” Bano told BenarNews from her parental house in Terrai in north India’s Uttarakhand state, about 250 km (155 miles) from Delhi.
In her petition filed in March, Bano sought a complete ban on triple talaq, polygamy and nikah halala – where a divorced woman has to marry another man and then divorce him to remarry her former husband.
Bano said these practices should be deemed illegal and unconstitutional as they violate Articles 14 (equality before law), 15 (prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion, caste, sex, place of birth), 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) and 25 (freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion) of the Constitution.
In India, where nearly 180 million Muslims constitute the largest minority in the country, there is no single civil law code for all of its 1.25 billion citizens. Muslim personal law is governed by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which has resisted attempts to modernize its ostensibly Sharia-based laws and has vowed to challenge Bano’s petition.
According to Tahir Mahmood, former chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, the practice of tripletalaq is an aberration that finds no mention in the Quran or Sharia. It is banned or not practiced in several Muslim countries, including Algeria, Iran, Malaysia, Tunisia, Turkey and Pakistan.
Even as Muslim rights activists and women’s groups from across the country are voicing support for Bano, the Supreme Court has given the Indian government and the AIMPLB until early May to respond her petition.
Bano, who holds a master’s degree in sociology, said she dreamed of becoming a teacher until she was deemed a suitable match for Rizwan Ahmed, a real estate agent from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh state, in 2002.
“He crushed all my dreams,” Bano said. “He wouldn’t even let me step out of the house, leave alone take up a job.”
Following the birth of her son, Irfan, 13, and daughter Muskan, 11, Bano said her husband forced her to undergo seven abortions. “This obviously took a toll on my health.”
In April 2015, Bano’s parents brought her, along with her two children, back to their house to help her recuperate.
“Three months later, my husband came. He took both my kids with him, saying he will come back for me. Since then, his phone has been switched off. I haven’t heard from him or my children,” Bano said.
On Oct. 10, Bano received a letter by post. “In it, my husband had written the sentence, ‘I hereby divorce you’ three times. The letter was signed by him and two other men, who are considered as witnesses to the divorce,” she said.
“I am worried for my children. I don’t know where or how they are. If they are going to school or not, if they are eating properly or not,” Bano said, as she broke down.
While she has been called “un-Islamic” by some sections of the Muslim society for challenging age-old practices of the religion, Bano is aware her “fight ahead is a long and hard one,” but she is ready for it.
“I will not back down. What is happening to Muslim women here is wrong. Things need to change now,” she said.
Demand for codified Muslim personal law
In a 2013 survey of 10 Indian states by the Mumbai-based Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a group working to empower Muslim women, an overwhelming majority wanted Muslim personal law to be codified.
Of the 4,320 Muslim women interviewed, 92.1 percent said they wanted the practice of unilateral oral triple talaq abolished. About 93 percent wanted a mandatory arbitration period before divorce. More than 91 percent were against polygamy.
Last November, the group released a report chronicling some 100 cases of triple talaq.
BMMA founder Zakia Soman said that over the years, the group had come across “thousands of cases of triple talaq,” some even by way of Facebook and Skype, rendering the women destitute.
Last year, a high-level government committee set up to review the status of women in India recommended a ban on the practice of triple talaq and polygamy, saying such practices render “wives extremely vulnerable and insecure regarding their marital status.”
The Supreme Court has directed the government to submit this report, which has not been made public, on the next date of hearing. An exact date has yet to be fixed by the apex court.
Muslim board against change
The AIMPLB, however, has made clear it wants no changes to the Muslim personal law.
On April 18, the AIMPLB unanimously passed a resolution with called for “non-interference by courts and government in matters of Muslim personal law,” board member Zafaryab Jilani told reporters, adding that the resolution has been sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Asma Zehra, another AIMPLB member, was quoted by BBC that Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was focusing on the issue of triple talaq “basically because they want to interfere in our religion” so they can introduce a uniform civil code.
Back in Uttarakhand, Bano is mentally preparing herself for the legal battle ahead. “Right now, my only focus is to fight for my rights and my children.
“I have undertaken a mission that requires courage. I get that courage whenever I think of my children. I am certain change is just around the corner.”(Benar News)