Muslim women fight 'triple talaq' in India

Ms Mehmood, 31, and her three-year-old daughter Maisha at home in Bhopal on April 28. Her then husband divorced her by scrawling "talaq" in Arabic three times in a letter posted to her parents' home.
Ms Mehmood, 31, and her three-year-old daughter Maisha at home in Bhopal on April 28. Her then husband divorced her by scrawling "talaq" in Arabic three times in a letter posted to her parents' home.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Many countries already ban practice that makes it easy for men to end marriages

ANDRABI (India) • Only three words were scrawled on the letter from her husband and posted to her parents' home in central India, but they were enough to shatter Ms Sadaf Mehmood's life.

Using an ancient and controversial Islamic practice, Ms Mehmood's husband wrote "talaq, talaq, talaq" or "I divorce you" three times in Arabic, instantly ending his marriage of five years.

"I was completely shocked and shattered. We had differences soon after we wed but it never looked so bad," said the mother of three.

Ms Mehmood, who is from Bhopal, is one of a number of Indian Muslim women whose husbands dissolved their marriage using triple talaq, the message delivered by everything from traditional letters to Facebook and WhatsApp.

India, which is officially secular, is one of the few nations that legally permit the practice, which is banned in many Muslim countries.

"The talaqnama (divorce letter) came without any intimation or warning," said Ms Mehmood, 31, adding that she now struggles to make ends meet without her husband's support.

Another divorcee, Ms Shayara Bano, has asked the Supreme Court to outlaw it, as a backlash against the practice gathers steam.

"I understand my marriage is over but something needed to be done so that other Muslim women do not suffer," Ms Bano said of her petition filed in February, which has encouraged at least one other divorcee to follow suit.

India's religious minorities, including its 155 million Muslims, are governed by personal laws that are meant to enshrine their religious freedom in Hindu-majority India.

But women say the Muslim Personal Law Application Act, which is based on Syariah law and permits triple talaq, is being misused, allowing men to instantly walk away from their families.

"Women are generally treated as second-class citizens in our society and they are further discriminated against by those misinterpreting religion," said Ms Sadia Akhtar, who works for Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, a charity helping to empower Muslim women.

A survey of Muslim women by the charity last year found an overwhelming majority favoured abolition of the practice, deeming it un-Islamic. Some 500 of the 4,000 women surveyed said they had been divorced that way.

In recent weeks, some 50,000 Muslims signed a petition organised by the charity as part of a campaign to ban it.

Many Muslim-majority countries, including neighbouring Bangladesh, have already banned the triple talaq, while legislation on the ban is pending in Pakistan's Parliament.

But India's Muslim leaders are reluctant to amend the law, fearing an erosion of their religious identity. Some fear Hindu hardliners will use such changes as an excuse to push for the entire abolition of the law.

The issue comes at a time of heightened concern among minorities about rising intolerance by Hindus hardliners, who have become emboldened since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election in 2014.

His Hindu nationalist government is committed to replacing personal laws for all religious minorities with a common civil code, to enhance national unity.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'Muslim women fight 'triple talaq' in India'. Print Edition | Subscribe