Feminism

India has criminalised instant divorce. But is the true purpose of this move really to empower women?

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It is always, on the face of things, a good day when a repressive and misogynistic practice is outlawed.  Earlier this week, India’s parliament approved a bill to ban ‘triple talaq’ or ‘instant divorce’, the practice by which a Muslim man can divorce his wife by simply saying the word ‘talaq’ or ‘I divorce you’ three times in front of her.  It was declared ‘unconstitutional’ by the supreme court two years ago, but this new legislation goes further and criminalises the practice.  Any man found to have attempted to divorce his wife through triple talaq can be punished with up to three years in prison.  Although the law has now been challenged in the supreme court, it has already been given presidential assent.

Triple talaq, a practice I have condemned in the past, has been banned by most Muslim countries, but has managed to linger on in India.  It is deeply misogynistic, and enables men to quite simply abandon their wives, even over the phone or by text.  It is a law that silences women in divorce proceedings and excludes them from their own marital affairs.  It has existed for decades, despite having no basis in Islamic law.  

In many ways, banning triple talaq is a victory for Muslim women in India.  It is something many women’s networks have lobbied against for years, in a fight that has often pitted them against their communities.  

But reactions to the ban have been mixed.  The ruling BJP party has been attempting to criminalise triple talaq for over a year, and the passing of this new legislation in the lower house of India’s parliament has been hailed as a victory for justice by members of the party.  

It thus stands to reason that a victory for justice engineered by the BJP must by default be a victory for the BJP itself.

And this is one of many reasons as to why the reaction to this legislation is so mixed.  Because although for many people triple talaq represents an injustice, this is the first time in India that a law applying to a specific religious group has been criminalised.  In fact, it is precisely because triple talaq solely applies to the Muslim community that this law is seen as problematic.  

Many Muslim groups in India already disagree with the practice of triple talaq.  But many Muslims also virulently oppose the Hindu-nationalist agenda of the BJP.  Reports have found that the BJP has actively stoked anti-Muslim violence across India.  There has been a shocking trend whereby squads of Hindu ‘cow vigilantes’ have attacked and sometimes killed Muslims for allegedly eating beef or harming cattle, sacred animals to the Hindu population.  The BJP does not condemn such attacks; in fact, it tacitly condones them.  

In short, the hardline anti-Muslim agenda of the BJP makes its enthusiasm for the triple talaq ban an area for concern.  Because if the ban enables the incarceration of any Muslim men who breach it, then it may well be open to abuse.  Muslims make up roughly 20% of India’s prison population, despite constituting just 13% of the country as a whole.  Criminalising triple talaq may seem to be an objectively progressive step, but it may simply be a way to ensure that bias and discrimination against Muslims is entrenched in Indian law. 

Because, despite their claims, the BJP’s enthusiasm for outlawing triple talaq does not stem from feminist concern.  The party does not have a good record on women’s rights.  For example, while the party has an education programme directed specifically at girls, it is alleged that 55% of the budget for the programme has actually been spent on party publicity.  The child sex ratio in India has now plummeted to 919 girls for every 1000 boys, and even when prime minister Narendra Modi spoke out against sex selective abortion, it was only to question whom the surplus boys would marry.

And this is not the worst of it.  In a cruel combination of misogyny and anti-Muslim prejudice, when an eight year old girl from a nomadic Muslim community was gang raped and murdered by eight Hindu men, ministers from the BJP attended rallies in support of the suspects.  There were tensions over land in Jammu, the area where the girl was raped, and the attack on her was an attempt to force the nomadic Gujjar Muslim community to flee the place.  As a result of these religious tensions, a young child was subjected to an unbearable ordeal.  But to the BJP she was an irrelevance – an inconsequential symptom of what they saw as a fight to promote their Hindu-nationalist ideology.

The BJP is no friend to women.  The banning of triple talaq serves as a nice propaganda opportunity for the party, where they can pay lip-service to women’s rights while enacting a law that singles out Muslims.  This law may bring about more opportunities to incarcerate Muslim men, and will certainly appeal to hardline Hindu segments of India’s population.  All in all, the picture is pretty bleak.  And all the while, the BJP are full of self-congratulation, claiming that they have brought about “justice”.  In this way, they appropriate all the hard work that Muslim women have been trying to do for decades.  But it is only injustice that prevails when a party which cares more about cows than women gets to tout the badge of “women’s rights”, and undermine another group’s rights in the process.

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