PUCL Bulletin,

September 1982

Muslim women and civil rights
-- By Shobha, Anuja

The present study is an attempt to bring into focus aspects governing the life of Muslim women in India. Disparities exist between the rights guaranteed to women by the Constitution and the place assigned to them by society. To categorize Muslims as a homogenous entity is not correct but we have drawn the various inferences after eliciting the views of people we met in Delhi.

Although the status of women is no where high, the position of a Muslim woman is worse. She is forced to live a submissive and secluded life. She is prohibited from being a priest and is forbidden to lead a prayer despite the fact that the Holy Quran consider men and women equal. However, there is a very clear distinction between the rights of men and women. Purdah, distribution of property and the marriage contract increase this disparity, so do polygamy which is permitted, and the husbands' right to divorce unilaterally.

Marriage under the Muslim law is a contract mainly for begetting children. The husband can, on religious grounds, demand obedience and services from the wife. Moreover, the muslim civil code has provided the Muslim man with a right to polygamy, though the prophet mentioned the subject only once. He was referring to the battle of Uhud where only 70 out of 700 men had survived, throwing up the problem of orphans & widows. Marriage, he said, offered one way of looking after them. But he also added that this should be resorted to only if the man could treat all his wives equally, both in love and material prospects. But since only a prophet could comply with such rigid conditions, ordinary men were supposed to have one wife. But a misinterpretation of his words and a male dominated society have made polygamy prevalent.

What is more, a muslim woman cannot marry a non-muslim whereas a man can. Contrary to the general notion of equality, a husband is also granted a partial unilateral right of divorce. He can dissolve his marriage by uttering the word 'talaq' thrice even without stating the reasons and in the absence of his wife who merely needs to be informed.

On the other hand, a woman can divorce her husband only if

(a) An agreement is made before or after the marriage by which she is at liberty to divorce herself from her husband under certain specified conditions which are not opposed to the policies of Islamic Law.

(b) By recourge to court on one or more of the grounds stated under the law such as

(c) (i) Unawareness about his whereabouts for 4 years.

(ii) failure to get maintenance for 2 years,

(iii) impotency, insanity of the husband, or if he is suffering from some venereal disease,

(iv) cruelty and

(v) option of puberty i.e. if she was married before the age of 15.

Although certain grounds of divorce are given to women, practically it is difficult because of the financial problems that accrue and the legal procedures involved. Besides, most of the women we met were reluctant to consider divorce, their minds having been conditioned to the ideas of male superiority.

While it is the highest obligation of the husband in Muslim law to maintain his wife, a divorced muslim wife has no right to maintenance beyond three months. In addition, the muslim law gives her and inferior position with regard to guardianship. She is not recognized as death. Muslim law, however, recognizes her prime right to the custody of minor children which cannot be deprived by the father except for misconduct.

There is a difference between the Shia and the Hanafi Schools regarding the age when the mothers right of custody ends. For example, in the case of a minor son, the Shia school holds the mothers guardianship till the child reaches the age of two years, while the Hanifi school extends this period to 7 years.

An important means adopted by Islam to safeguard the interest of women after marriage was Mehr (Dower). Though in theory it can be taken at any time, it is impractical for a wife to demand her mehr and maintain cordial marital relationship. Non payment of Mehr can be one of the grounds for divorce, yet most wives never get it. Lack of proper knowledge also makes it difficult to get it. Lack of proper knowledge also makes it difficult to get Mehr even after divorce.

In the matter of property, the Quran says the that male child would inherit twice as much as a female and a wife shall inherit 1/3 of her husband's estate. Under the Sunni system, the provision is more discriminating. A daughter without a brother does not inherit more than her share: the rest must go to the male in the family howsoever remote. But under the Shia system the daughter inherits her share.

Purdah in India involves a complexity of segregation. The purdahnashin is as a result of being secluded from male company other than that of her immediate non-marrigeable relatives for her whole life. Most of the women we talked to confirmed that purdah prohibits a woman's voice from being heard by a man outside her own circle of relatives. A majority of Muslim women observe purdah regularly though a few working women we met found purdah inconvenient in the changing modern times.

Although Muslim law assigns a subordinate position to women, their emancipation is class oriented. Socially the community is split into well-defined mutually exclusive groups of rich-poor and educated/non-educated with distinct differences of thoughts and opinions. Education is generally the privilege of the affluent while for the girls of the lower strata, it is mainly confined to quran sharif with emphasis on male superiority. The middle class, however, wishes to provide schooling to their girls with the hope of finding a suitable match.

In close contact with other secular groups, the Indian Muslims cannot escape the influence of modernization. A few muslim women are now receiving education and are working alongside men. It is hard to distinguish them from others by their way of speaking living and dressing. Mohsima Kidwai and Begum Abida Ahmed are good examples. But this advance limited to a few, the vast mass is way behind, facing problems of illiteracy, purdah and polygamy. Polygamy way not be prevalent in a cosmopolitan city like Delhi, not because people oppose it morally but because they find it difficult economically.

The continuance of various personal laws discriminating between men and women, violate fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution which promises equality to all citizens. It is also against the spirit of national integration and secularism.

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