India’s Supreme Court banned a form of unilateral, instant, and irrevocable divorce on Tuesday, thereby answering a demand Muslim women have been making in the country for over 70 years.
Known widely as “triple talaq,” the controversial practice allows husbands to divorce their wives simply by uttering the word “talaq” (divorce) three times.
Triple Talaq is not supported by the Koran, which stipulates that divorce proceedings should unfold over a three month period to allow a couple time to reflect and reconsider. For this reason, among others, triple talaq has already been banned in twenty-two Islamic countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Iran.
The Muslim clergy in India have, however, long supported triple talaq, leading to the persistence of its practice in the country. In fact, as modern technology has expedited distance communication around the world, so too had it expedited instances of triple talaq until the August 22nd ruling. For instance, in recent years, text messages, emails, and communication platforms like Facebook or Whatsapp had become popular means of communicating triple talaq’s divorce knell, which does not require a wife to agree or even be present for her husband’s pronouncement to hold legal weight.
“It’s nothing but patriarchy masquerading as religion,” said Zakia Soman one of the founding members of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA, or the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement). “Who gave the law board the right to take away our rights given to us by Allah?”
BMMA, along with a number of individual women who have contested their triple talaq divorces in court, have been instrumental in bringing the issue to public consciousness. Furthermore, the issue of human rights has, as Soman’s statement foresaw, proven to be central to the Supreme Court’s recent decision.
Shayara Bano’s case was particularly significant in this regard because it challenged her divorce on the grounds that triple talaq had violated her fundamental right to equality as laid out by the Constitution of India.
“I wonder why no-one thought of this before,” Bano’s lawyer, Balaji Srinivasan, told the BBC. “Maybe, it’s an idea whose time has come.”
Evidently, the time for enforcing gender equality in India has indeed come and the practice of triple talaq has been suspended for an official six month period while the task of creating new legislation falls to the Union of India.
“The judgement is progressive because it recognizes that this talaq practice is extremely oppressive to women and not essential to religious law,” said activist Karuna Nundy to Al Jazeera of the ruling’s significance.
Still, with only three out of five convened judges voting to overturn triple talaq and popular opinion in the country still being divided, the battle for greater gender equality in India has hardly been won. Triple talaq is, in many ways, only one obvious symptom of a larger social problem. The patriarchal forces behind triple talaq’s decades-long persistence against protests, court appeals, and surveys, are not going to disappear just because of a legislative ruling.
Indeed, while, previous to Tuesday’s ruling, India’s Muslim Law Board had opposed court intervention in talaq practices, they had also asserted that change was necessary, stipulating that it be left to communities to handle on their own.
India’s Muslim Law Board was categorically wrong to deny the need for court intervention in a practice which has, for centuries, given women no avenue for contesting divorces, which leaves them voiceless, often destitute, and without access to their children. As such, the Board was right to suggest, however, that change would need community backing in order to truly take effect.
With that said, if India is to move forward from this tradition, its supreme court’s recent ruling will have to incite a change in attitude, as well as a change in the law. Equality is legislative—that is to say that responsible legislation is indispensable to protecting a society’s potential for equality. However, equality is also a system of belief. Thus, equality has to be believed in and the women of India deserve for the whole of their society, from the high courts to their neighbours, partners, and the leaders of their religious institutions, to fight alongside them to make their constitutional rights a reality.
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