Muslim Women In India Ask Top Court To Ban Instant Divorce : Goats and Soda To end his marriage, a Muslim man in India only needs to say 'talaq,' meaning divorce. A growing movement wants to change this practice.
NPR logo

Muslim Women In India Ask Top Court To Ban Instant Divorce

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/521362478/521550476" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Muslim Women In India Ask Top Court To Ban Instant Divorce

Muslim Women In India Ask Top Court To Ban Instant Divorce

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/521362478/521550476" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's banned in many Muslim countries, but instant divorce persists among India's Muslims. There, men have the power to end a marriage just by uttering a single word which means divorce. Now India's supreme court is hearing the petitions of several former wives to ban the practice. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy has our report.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Seema Parveen was no more than 16 when her first husband divorced her. The marriage was as short as it was brutal. Three decades on, Seema recalls her husband threatening to hurl her from the balcony and his rage when she bore him a daughter and not a son.

SEEMA PARVEEN: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: His whole family was upset. So I took my daughter and went to my mother's. That's when my husband wrote and said talaq.

PARVEEN: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: I didn't know what was happening, she says. All it requires for a Muslim man in India to sever marital bonds is to declare talaq, which means divorce. Pronounced three times, it's irrevocable. Critics condemn talaq as unilateral and cruel. Seema was divorced, or talaq'd (ph), three times by three different men.

PARVEEN: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: She remarried for the third time in 2010 and says, shortly thereafter, her husband and his sons would beat me, lock me in a room and deprive me of food. After abandoning her, husband number 3 delivered talaq by telephone. But despite the violence, the 42-year-old Seema is determined to go back to his home.

PARVEEN: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Where will I go? My father's dead. There's no one to take care of me, she says. But I have rights to my husband's pension, and I'm not giving that up.

ZAKIA SOMAN: In an instant, she becomes homeless. So that status of a wife, she wants to keep.

MCCARTHY: Zakia Soman is co-founder of the Indian Muslim Women's Movement and says her organization sees many women who want to stay in unhappy marriages to avoid being destitute. And she says domestic violence and the male prerogative to declare instant divorce are intimately linked. Soman calls talaq a sword hanging over a woman's head.

SOMAN: Do this, or I talaq you. Don't do that; otherwise, I'll talaq you. I should know because I had a very bad marriage myself. And being beaten was my fate for 16 long years.

MCCARTHY: Soman fled after she and her son were savagely beaten. And days later, the letter arrived from her husband announcing divorce. But up until then, Soman says, the social pressure to remain in that marriage was immense.

SOMAN: You know that - that women trap? I need to make this work. You know, having all the people around you who judge you all the time, no? If you are talking against your husband, you're a bad - you're not a good woman. You know, that whole burden of the institution of marriage.

MCCARTHY: In 2015, Soman's organizations surveyed India's Muslim community, the world's third largest. It found that 1 in every 11 women is subjected to this casual way of ending a marriage. Only less than five percent ever gets any financial support. Activists like Soman say India's conservative clerics sanction this practice, relegating Muslim women to second-class citizens.

SOMAN: Where is the need to, you know, consult a woman? Where is the need to take her opinion? - is what they feel. And they are sort of passing it off in the garb of religion.

MCCARTHY: India's supreme court will consider whether talaq is integral to Islam and, thus, a practice constitutionally protected under freedom of religion. The Muslim Personal Law Board, which unofficially governs the community, says talaq is valid as divine law and opposes any reforms. Board Member S. Q. R. Ilyas...

S. Q. R. ILYAS: Talaq is an honorable way of dissolving a marriage without going to the court of law, ending the marriage.

MCCARTHY: But Islamic scholar Tahir Mahmood says the Quran sanctions divorce only after a period of reflection and attempted reconciliation, usually lasting three months.

TAHIR MAHMOOD: This is a precondition for divorce. Who bothers about it? Nobody bothers about it.

MCCARTHY: Mahmood says no man is free to pronounce an instant divorce. That, he says, is a perversion of Islam and should be struck down.

MAHMOOD: Original version of the Quran - it insists on gender equality. And that is precisely what is missing in India.

MCCARTHY: If most Islamic countries have reformed their marriage and divorce laws, Mahmood says - why can't India? Some of the women who have petitioned to the courts to abolish instant divorce say aligning it with the Quran would end the exploitation. Others, like thrice-deserted Seema, would like divorce placed before the civil courts, removed from religion altogether. Zakia Soman says the courts provide women a level playing field.

SOMAN: It won't be easy because legal reform is one part of the overall reform, which is required in society, which will happen, which has to happen. This is just the beginning.

MCCARTHY: The supreme court reconvenes hearings next week on whether to ban talaq as a violation of equal rights or uphold it as a religious practice.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER TRIO'S "HUMAN NATURE")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.