Brinda  Karat –


Women of the sub-continent have more in common than their shared pre-partition history. At different moments in the evolution of policy frameworks of their respective nations, women of the sub-continent have found themselves marginalized. They are up against a different Line of Control than the one manned by armies. This is an LOC imposed by men who talk in the name of religion and tradition to impose laws that keep women subjugated. Violence and death to those who dare to cross that LOC.

Women have had to fight hard against these forces to defend and advance their rights. Sometimes the moment of the struggle coincides across borders. The present is such a time of coincidence. Women both in Pakistan and India are involved in struggles running parallel to each other. This is a moment in the sub-continent of women without borders.

In Pakistan, women in the province of Punjab led the struggle which forced the provincial government headed by Nawaz Sharif‘s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif to adopt the Protection of Women from Violence Act in February 2016, a civil law something on the lines of our own law for protection against domestic violence. Although the Act has been critiqued by women’s organizations in Pakistan as being inadequate, most still see it as a big step forward.

Punjab is the third Provincial Government in Pakistan to adopt a law against violence against women, but being the largest province, the backlash from the mainstream religious parties, important sections of the clergy and the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), has been extreme. They have denounced the Act as “unIslamic”, which will “make Pakistan a Western colony again”, as “designed to break the family system” and so on. The IIC, set up by the military regime in 1961, has a constitutional status and is supposed to vet laws and policies to ensure they are in consonance with Islamic tenets. It has come out with its own version of a law which permits “husbands to beat their wives lightly when required” and proposes a ban on women working in labour intensive sectors, in meeting State or foreign dignitaries, calls for segregation in schools and so on.

It has been met with outrage. Pakistan’s women have reacted strongly, some demanding that the IIC itself be abolished. The Punjab Commission on the Status of Women termed the CII proposals as “unconstitutional, illegal and a violation of fundamental rights”. The danger is that under pressure from fundamentalist parties, the government, which at the centre is dependent on many of these parties, may succumb and dilute the present law or scrap it altogether. So women are mobilizing in defence of the Act and against the dictates of the IIC. It is a most difficult battle being fought by women who are already made vulnerable by the constant threats of Islamist terrorist groups determined to impose their narrow interpretations of Islam.

While in India there is a much stronger secular legal framework against violence on women than in Pakistan, there are still umpteen gaps and loopholes. With the advent of the BJP-RSS led Government, retrograde thinking based on Manuvadi ideologies operating in the name of tradition are gaining strength. Here too there is a backlash against strong laws to protect women though of a different nature to that across the border. The concerted attack on Sec 498A which criminalizes domestic violence is one such example. The government is considering amendments to dilute it in the name of the law being misused and being detrimental to “family values”.

The arguments in India against bringing marital rape under the ambit of the anti-rape laws is another example. The arguments are based on the same perverted mindset which proposes legal sanction for the” light beating of women if required”. One of the “legitimate” reasons given by the clergy in Pakistan for a “light beating” is reportedly if the “woman refuses overtures for sexual intercourse.”

For us in India, a marriage certificate or saath pheras are sufficient to grant a license for a man to commit sexual acts with his wife without her consent and against her will.

Parliament was informed by Union Minister Maneka Gandhi that “the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament,” etc. Her colleague in the Home Ministry Haribhai Chaudhary, quoting a 2013 parliamentary committee report, informed the Lok Sabha that if marital rape was made a crime, the entire family system would come under great stress.

Take another example, that of “honour” crimes. Pakistani women have succeeded in outlawing honour crimes in their country, though the practice is still rampant. Here in India, in spite of a large number of crimes being committed against couples in the name of “honour”, the Bill drafted by the All India Democratic Women’s Association which was submitted by the National Commission of Women to the government, is in deep freeze. The casteist forces who believe in endogamy as the instrument to maintain “caste purity” are in positions of power. Even the highly retrograde khap panchayats’ fatwas have not been outlawed. In Pakistan, which has a law, women are struggling to make it stronger. In India we are still at the stage of demanding a law.

In Pakistan and Bangladesh, and indeed in most countries governed by Islamic law, triple talaq at one go (talaq-e-bidat) has been outlawed and is punishable. The requirement for arbitration is mandatory and has to continue for a minimum of three months in some countries and case-based arbitration in others. India is the only country in the world where Muslim men have the unfettered right to arbitrarily declare divorce in one go – instant divorce – at the whims and fancies of the husband, a most cruel and unacceptable instrument of torture and injustice against women.

The recent news that 50,000 signatures of Muslim men and women to outlaw triple talaq at one go have been submitted to the National Commission of Women in New Delhi is a most welcome step forward in this long drawn out struggle. The signatures have been collected by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). This is the most recent in the list of concerted efforts and movements by Muslim women in various organizations, supported by all sections of women, to fight for reforms in Muslim personal laws.

All organizations working among Muslim women have found without exception  that Muslim women of all classes, whether a bidi worker, a zardosi embroiderer or a college professor are united  in their strong demand for abolition of the current system of instant triple talaq. More than 100,000 signatures of Muslim men and women had been collected on different occasions by AIDWA in 2001 and then again in 2009 on a charter of demands of Muslim women including on this very issue of the unilateral right to instant divorce, as well as against the right to polygamy. The signatures had been given to the government in 2009, and earlier to the Minority Commission and to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. The latter had called a seminar in 2001 to hear the views of Muslim women. But that’s where it ended. In spite of repeated requests, the AIMPLB has remained adamant against any reform in personal law echoing the empty slogan of all fundamentalists that “religion is in danger”.

It has been reported that in 2015, the Board rejected calls from other organizations of ulema, such as clerics from Deoband sect, Barelvi and the All India Sunni Ulema Council, to outlaw instant talaq. All efforts to engage with the AIMPLB have proved futile and a waste of time for women desperate to get justice. The Board, if it has a right to exist at all, should be renamed as the All India Muslim Male Law Board since it has so consistently refused to hear the voices of Muslim women.

At present, the Supreme Court is hearing a petition filed by Shayara Bano against instant triple talaq. In 1986, it was Shah Bano who had gone to the court for her right to maintenance. The then government of Rajiv Gandhi had succumbed to the pressure of the fundamentalists and let down Muslim women by keeping them out of the ambit of Sec 125 of the law granting the right to maintenance.

The Supreme Court recently admitted a petition by 35-year-old Shayara Bano, demanding abolition of the verbal and unilateral practice of divorce in the Muslim personal law

Today, the very forces of Hindutva that hugely benefited from that fatally wrong decision of the Rajiv Government and started a campaign against “minority appeasement” are in power today. They will use every opportunity, including that of the genuine despair of Muslim women against instant talaq, as a stick to beat the whole community with and to further their diatribe against a particular religion as “being backward”. But that does not in any way mean that the struggle of Muslim women should be compromised. No doubt those opposed to change within the personal laws will blame Muslim women for giving a handle to the Hindutva forces, but in reality it is they who are responsible because of their refusal to heed the voices of women.

Of course as far as the Hindutvavadis are concerned, it is nothing but hypocrisy. During the debate on the Hindu Code Bill led by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, all the knights in shining armour of defendants of Hindu customs and tradition in parliament then spoke the same language that we hear from the IIC in Pakistan or the AIMPLB in India today. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, BJP icon, had been the most vocal in his opposition to Hindu law reform. In particular, he was incensed at the proposed right to divorce for Hindu women, calling it an attack on “the ideology that lies deep rooted in the minds of millions of people…Why do away with the fundamental and sacred nature of Hindu sacramental marriage.” Dr Ambedkar’s classic answer is worth remembering: “the sacramental ideal of marriage described in as few words as possible is polygamy for the man and perpetual slavery for the woman.”

The similarities of Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists are in their pasts and also in their present. But this cannot and must not stop the momentum of the struggle by Muslim women for personal law reform. It is supported by women of all communities. It will strengthen also the wider struggle for liberty beyond personal laws.

Change is coming in Pakistan, women are raising the flag of protest against all efforts to dilute the law against violence and they are getting the support of many sensible men, in Government, within families and even the clergy. Change is coming in India too and either through the courts or through community intervention, Muslim women will sooner rather than later have rid their community of the whip of instant talaq. Change is coming when young adults of different castes and communities exercise their constitutional, legal and democratic right to partners of their choice, and win for themselves a separate law to protect them from the violence of bigots, a law which will punish the perpetrators of atrocities committed in the name of honour.

At this time, women in both Pakistan and India stand shoulder-to-shoulder, hand in hand in their fight against fundamentalist and casteist forces, regardless of the religion or caste these forces claim to represent. The fight is hard, but women across borders and LOCs will overcome one day soon.