LOST VOICES RECLAIMED
Victims of the medieval divorce practice from across India speak about how women—wives, mothers and daughters—are cast aside by men using religion as a social and sexual weapon
Victims of the medieval divorce practice Triple Talaq from across India speak about how women — wives, mothers and daughters — are cast aside by men using religion as a social and sexual weapon
“There are elaborate procedures in Islam for separation. A SENIOR MAULANA ENDORSED MY VIEWS IN A TV DEBATE A FEW WEEKS AGO. HE AGREED THAT TALAQ IS NOT IN ACCORDANCE WITH ISLAMIC LAW. WHO MADE PEOPLE LIKE THE MUFTI CUSTODIANS OF ISLAM?”
Sadiya Khan, an alima whose husband divorced her via WhatsApp
“Babli didn’t run away, but waited to be arrested. DURING THE TRIAL IT CAME TO THE FORE THAT SHE WAS NOT MENTALLY NORMAL. HER MENTAL CHECK-UP REVEALED SHE HAD A PSYCHOTIC DISORDER AND VERY LOW IQ.”
Lawyer for Babli, who was acquitted of murder after her husband divorced her
Marriages are made in heaven is the cliché. Some marriages are simply hell. Triple talaq, a perverse, instant form of divorce, which enables a Muslim man to separate from his wife by uttering the word ‘talaq’ thrice—also through phone, texts, Skype and WhatsApp— has been a weapon of gender and economic brutality for 1,400 years in Hanafi Islam. A bitterly contested political and social issue, the exigencies of minority politics had been preventing successive governments from enacting marital reform in Islam since politicians had deemed it as interference in Sharia. Last week, a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court quashed the practice calling it “gender discriminatory and violation of right to equality”, after five women—Shayara Bano, Gulshan Parveen, Ishrat Jahan, Afreen Rehman and Farha Faiz—had approached the courts for relief from the medieval practice. After the ruling, Shayara said, “This is a happy moment for all Muslim women in India. This is a historic day for India.”
Times have indeed changed. At the height of the debate, Muslim leaders argued that triple talaq is a religious issue, which cannot be judicially negotiated but most Islamic scholars held that the practice, though un-Islamic, is valid! In 1978, Shah Bano, a mother of five, was granted maintenance from her husband by the apex court. However, yielding to pressure from Muslim politicians, the Congress government of the day passed the Muslim Women Act 1986, which diluted the ruling.
The latest ruling will be valid until the ban becomes law in Parliament. Is this a prelude to a Uniform Civil Code? From Shah Bano to Shayara Bano, it’s been one long struggle for Muslim women to stand up and be counted like their sisters from all faiths. One they have won.
For 35-year-old Tania Sharif, it wasn’t easy to take care of her two growing children after her husband divorced her five years ago. The government school teacher’s ordeal began when she enrolled her teenage daughter in a public school. Her enraged husband gave her triple talaq while they were having breakfast. “The moment I told him about our daughter getting enrolled in the school, he scolded me for not taking his consent. He wanted her to study in a madrasa, not in a regular school,” says Tania.
She filed a case against her husband Abdul Sharif in a Delhi court seeking alimony and right to living. “It was a challenge to upbring my two daughters without any financial support. I didn’t lose hope and continued teaching. I got my daughters enrolled in my school, which made it easier for me take care of them and concentrate on my career,” she says. “I had no house, no money. He threw me out. My family refused to support me as for them triple talaq is a taboo.”
Tania won the case, with the court granting her custody of Abdul’s house, ordering him to live separatley and give `10,000 monthly maintenance to her and the children.
Sadiya Khan, 19, is an ‘alima’, one who has read religious texts thoroughly. The Pune girl got a rude shock in April 2016 when the mufti told her that the talaq her husband had Whats-Apped her was in accordance with Islam.
A year on, anger has replaced shock. “How could he do so?” she asks of the mufti’s decision. “There are elaborate procedures in Islam for separation. A senior maulana endorsed my views in a TV debate a few weeks ago. He agreed that talaq is not in accordance with Islamic law. Who made people like the mufti custodians of Islam?”
Sadiya lost her parents when she was very young, and was raised by her grandparents. She studied in a madrasa and then completed a three-year course to become an ‘alima’, after which she was married off to a man who worked in a call centre. Her father-in-law was an auto driver and a cook.
“Two days into my marriage they started demanding dowry. I told them that everything was done as per our capacity, which led to a quarrel. They kept repeating the demands,” says Sadiya.
When she got pregnant, Sadiya went to live with her grandparents. Two days later, her husband WhatsApped her “talaq, talaq, talaq” and told her not to return without dowry. When she confronted them in their house, he allegedly pushed her into the bathroom, hit her and made her drink shampoo. She was moved to hospital in a semi- conscious state. On coming to, she realised the physical assault had led to her abortion. Sadiya filed a police complaint against her husband and in-laws, which is ongoing in court.
“It all made me realise I was right and had been wronged. That replaced fear and pity within myself with the anger,” says Sadiya, who now wants to become a lawyer.
One fine morning, P P Afsana from Idiyangara in Kozhikode received a mail from her husband pronouncing triple talaq. And with those three words, this 32-year-old was left destitute.
Afsana, an MA BEd, got married in April 2013. She was allegedly forced by her husband and his parents to quit her job as a school teacher. She was continuously harassed by her husband and his family members over her dark complexion and dowry.
Five months into the marriage, her husband sent her home and refused to accept her back even after their daughter Amina was born.
“After not answering my calls or messages for a few months, my husband informed me that he had divorced me. I didn’t know what to do. He did not even follow the procedures mentioned in the Sharia law,” she added.
On a domestic violence case filed by her, the court issued a protection order in favour of Afsana. She staged a sit-in along with her two-year-old child outside her husband’s house seeking justice. Afsana withdrew the case after the two parties reached an agreement over maintenance.
Afsana stays with her mother and siblings. Her husband has remarried.
Within a year after being married to Mohammad Munawwar at the age of 18 in Saharsa, illiterate Biwi Mariam began getting signals that he was unhappy with the marriage. When they had their first child two years later, she thought her marriage would improve. She never believed that Munawwar, whom she loved dearly, would give her triple talaq and desert her with their two children.
“I was devastated and wanted to commit suicide. But the thought of my children’s future gave me courage,” says Mariam, who lives in a rented single room. Her son Sayid is seven and her daughter Parveen is 20 months old.
Mariam works as a domestic help, doing dishes in six homes. “I can’t buy milk for my daughter, nor books and clothes for my son. I take care of my old, sick mother. Life is hell for me,” she says. Her father died six years ago.
Munawwar, a tailor, had been pressuring her parents for a motorcycle, `50,000 and a gold chain. “He used to beat me up. Then he found another woman, said talaq to me three times, took everything we had and left,” she says.
Mariam shot to the headlines last month when she insisted on meeting Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh during his Saharsa visit. “I failed to meet him. I wanted to tell him of my struggles and urge him to put an end to triple talaq in the country,” says Mariam. “The long practice of men marrying at whim, producing children and leaving them must end. I’ll convert to Hinduism unless triple talaq is banned.”
After she couldn’t meet the Home Minister, the local Muslim clergy and her Muslim neighbours “wanted me to shut up. They threatened of dire consequences”. She fears for her and her children’s lives.
Mehrunissa Bano (name changed) says, “He just said three words—talaq, talaq, talaq—and my life wasn’t the same. It shouldn’t be so easy for him to move on. Can he give me back the time I spent with him? Can he make me the person I was before I met him? I only hope and pray now that no other girl goes through this.”
Since childhood, women have been conditioned to believe in the ‘happily ever after’. Mehrunissa was no different. When this 21-year-old married Ashfaq Hussaini (name changed) in 2008, life seemed full of promise.
“There was a problem with the way my husband handled the talaq and the way the qazi went about the procedure. If these people followed what is given in the Sharia law properly, there would have been no issue. Triple talaq, when done as per the rules, is not wrong,” says she.
About her abusive marriage, Mehrunissa says, “I was alive, but that was about it. They treated me like a prisoner. They took all my cash, clothes, and jewellery. They denied me food and water. I would beg and plead in vain. They would threaten that they would kill me or that my husband would get married to someone else.”
One day, when the beatings became too much to take, Mehrunissa jumped from her second floor home and landed on an asbestos sheet on the first floor. The people on the ground floor helped her. Once on the ground, she didn’t waste a second. She got into an autorickshaw and went straight to her maternal house. When asked if she felt any fear, she shrugs, “What did I have to
fear? My life was hell either way; this was my chance at a better life.”
Later, there were some attempts to sort things out. Her brother, Ali Akbar (name changed), filed a complaint against Ashfaq and his kin. The accused gave an apology at the Vepery police station and promised to return Mehrunissa’s 30 sovereigns of gold in three months’ time.
Those months turned into years, and Mehrunissa is still waiting for her gold. She went back to give her marriage another chance. But things were soon back to square one.
“My husband and mother-inlaw would pour kerosene on me and threaten to set me ablaze. I was so petrified that I would lock myself in the bathroom,” she says.
In the midst of all this, Mehrunissa got pregnant. “My child made me want to stay alive. But that happiness did not last. One day, my in-laws gave me something to drink and I had to be rushed to the hospital. They had to operate on me when I was three months pregnant. I lost my child.”
While she was mourning the loss of her child, Ashfaq sent a letter to Ali’s house, claiming that the qazi had accepted his divorce.
“Ashfaq never gave us a proper reason, which is mandatory under Sharia law,” says an angry Ali, adding that Mehrunissa was not given her maintenance as prescribed by Sharia law.
“She stays with us, but what if we were not there? Where would she have gone? Because the letter from the qazi is considered the final word, we are not able to challenge the decision in court,” says Ali.
“All I want for her now is a good man who will show her how to be happy again,” is all that her mother can say.
It takes an effort to make Tarannum Bhanu speak. Shaheen, the NGO that is helping her, coaxes her to open up. She speaks haltingly, “I was 15 or 16 when I was married in 2005. I have seven sisters and it was natural that I would be married off early. He was an autorickshaw driver and had a lot of demands. I will leave you was something I would hear from him every day.”
Recalling the moment that she knew her marriage ended, she says, “It was like my limbs were cut off. Suddenly I had to think about a roof over my head, money to buy groceries, and taking care of my four children.”
A lazy man, his demands were unending. When it was clear that Tarannum could not meet the demands, talaq it was.
While her two younger children stay with her, the elder two stay with the father. “The older ones also complain that they are abused, but I have no control over anything,” she rues.
Married at 16, all that Fatima Biwi (name changed) endured during the 24 years of her married life was abuse and torture.
A train ticket examiner, Fatima’s husband was a woman chaser. “Koi aur mil gayi, chale gaye uske peeche (He would find another woman and go after her),” explains an angry Fatima.
“Just because a woman has the will and capacity to endure, life keeps throwing more challenges at her. I lost the will to live after he left me,” she recalls, pulling up her burkha to show us lines on her neck after she tried to hang herself.
After repeatedly threatening her with talaq since 1993, her husband took the final step in 2015. It came as a shocker to Fatima. He came along with the woman he chose to live with and forcefully made Fatima sign a document. “I don’t know what I signed on, but I knew it was over and the one thing I felt strongly was the feeling of hopelessness,” she recalls.
“I was handicapped because I was dependent on him for more than 20 years. One of my children is mentally unstable. My daughter is yet to be married. My youngest son has seen the trouble I take to make ends meet and has stopped going to school. I get no money from him even though he is a government officer,” says she between sobs.
Wasima Sultana is a 26-year- old who is clueless about how to deal with what life has thrown at her. She was still grieving about her trauma of losing her son months after he was born, when her husband and his parents started blaming her for the death.
“I was married because everyone around me was getting married. We spent around `20 lakh for the wedding but their demands for dowry were too high. He wasn’t there besides me when I was pregnant. It was a complicated surgery,” says she.
Two years after her husband pronounced divorce, she is actually relieved. “I have no regrets that the relationship ended as it was abusive. He would keep threatening divorce for every small thing. We lived together for only one-and-a-half months, after which he left for Dubai. He would threaten me from miles away,” Wasima recalls.
While it was a sigh of relief, her struggles began after the divorce. “I lost my father and I live with my mother. I filed a maintenance case in court, but the only progress is a new date every time,” she shares. (Names have been changed)
Hasina Banu (name changed) shudders when asked about the fateful day that plunged her into an abyss of fear and uncertainty, and made her a recluse. Her husband divorced her via triple talaq and threw her out of his house with her three children (the eldest was 11). Her parents were incapable of supporting her, as they had to arrange for the marriage of their other children. And all of this because her husband felt, after 10 years of marriage, that he could no longer support them.
Hasina, 31, lives in Azizuddin Road in Mangaluru. Her children were six, nine and 11 on that fateful day in January 2016. Her husband Ajmal (name changed) and his parents had been good to her, but had also always been powerless before their son’s unreasonable anger.
The day is etched in Hasina’s mind. Ajmal got into a rage and said he couldn’t sustain the family. He wanted to marry another woman who would bring in a fat dowry, and Hasina would serve as her subordinate. He divorced her with the three words.
Hasina belonged to a large but poor family. Her father is a loader in the port; her mother works in an oil mill. The eldest child among three sisters and four brothers, Hasina was just 20 when she was married off. The first baby followed the next year, followed by two more in quick succession. Ajmal was a well-to-do businessman who dealt in dry fruits.
Post the first pregnancy, things went downhill as Ajmal’s temper worsened, which also quelled the support from her in-laws. After the third pregnancy, Ajmal first uttered the word talaq, a sort of warning for what was to come.
“He first accused me that I wasn’t helping his mother in household chores. My motherin-law had testified that I was a great help to her. Then he accused me of being uneducated; my father-in-law supported me on this. The third and final reason he gave was that he was not able to support three children and a wife financially as it was putting his own life in jeopardy,” recalls Hasina.
After the triple talaq, Hasina’s biggest fear was the well-being of her children. She started working at the oil mill. She stays in a low-rent tworoom set, courtesy of a family which took pity on her and the kids. She is learning to stitch with an old, borrowed sewing machine. “My children go to school where they get mid-day meals,” she says. And this is Hasina’s biggest source of motivation and happiness—her children.
Nine years after her marriage, Kaniz Fatima’s world came crashing down when she discovered that her husband, Mohammadd Hanif, a teacher, was having an extra-marital affair. They had two schoolgoing sons.
A native of Balasore district of Odisha, she married Hanif when she was 19. Hanif also taught in a madrasa.
“At first, I thought he might change over time. I took good care of him and the family, although I was shattered from inside. I had no clue why would he be attracted to another woman,” says 38-year-old Kaniz.
But Hanif showed no change. “My husband wanted my consent for a second marriage, which I did not agree to,” she says. During the fag end of 2012, Hanif uttered the dreaded words. It was like a ton of bricks hitting Fatima.
A few months later, Hanif left for school and did not return. Fatima learned that he had taken leave without informing the family. He couldn’t be traced.
“Three months later, he re-appeared but did not come home. He stayed at the madrasa. There was no effort on his part to reach out to us. Then he sent two more talaq notices through court. Alongside came the iddat and meher via a pay cheque,” says Fatima.
Fatima didn’t accept because she wanted justice. To corroborate his second and third talaqs, Hanif produced witnesses. As per the existing norms, the witnesses must be known to the wife, but in this case, Fatima didn’t know any of them. She challenged the talaq in court and filed a case of domestic violence.
“My father had helped my husband get a job and land, and constructed the house at Dhamnagar, only to witness his daughter getting tortured regularly,” she says.
While Hanif has remarried and has children with her, Fatima is struggling to meet her daily needs. She gets a monthly maintenance of `14,000 from Hanif, of which `8,000 goes for her children’s education. Fatima, who has studied up to Class VII, is now seeking her rights on the house, which she says is under forcible occupation of her husband and in-laws.
“He says if I go through nikah
halala, he’ll take me back. But what is the guarantee that the new one will leave me, and what is the guarantee that he (husband) will accept me. I’ll lose both the worlds. How will I live?” asks Shahla Naaz of Moradabad. Nikah halala involves a female divorcee marrying someone else, consummating the marriage and then getting a divorce in order to make it allowable to remarry her previous husband.
After 13 years of marriage and three children to look after, Shahla was forced out of the house by her alcoholic husband Faridudeen in the dead of night eight months ago. “Somehow I spent 13 years, howsoever torturous, with him,” she says. Her husband has remarried. “All through 13 years, my husband and his family used to demand one thing or the other. My father fulfilled the demands to the best of his capabilities,” she says. Faridudeen is a quality control manager in a private firm.
Things triggered off when Shahla asked Faridudeen to get corrective surgery for their eldest daughter’s cleft lip. Shahla sold her jewellery to pay for the surgery. “He stopped talking to me and his kids. He got engaged to another girl,” she says. Even then, Shahla remained at her in-law’s place and Faridudeen raped her for four continuous nights. “After handing out talaq, physical relationship with the estranged wife is
haraam as per our law. But he continued even without my consent,” she says. After four nights of raping Shahla, Faridudeen went to his parents with his belongings on the upper floor of the house, leaving her to fend for herself along with the children.
Shahla, a post-graduate in English Literature, stayed on. After 20 days, Faridudeen forced her out of the house past midnight knowing her parents were away in Delhi. “I had no option but to go to the police station where my husband was called,” says Shahla. But the worst was yet to come. When confronted by the police, Faridudeen accused Shahla of prostitution. “That was my last encounter with him. Now the case is in the court. He isn’t ready to give us financial maintenance. He says if I want to go back, I’ll have to go through nikah
halala, which I can never agree to,” she adds.
“At first, I thought he might change over time. I TOOK GOOD CARE OF HIM AND THE FAMILY, ALTHOUGH I WAS SHATTERED FROM INSIDE. I HAD NO CLUE WHY WOULD HE BE ATTRACTED TO ANOTHER WOMAN.”
Kaniz Fatima, whose husband divorced her for another woman
“I was devastated and wanted to commit suicide. BUT THE THOUGHT OF MY TWO CHILDREN’S FUTURE GAVE ME COURAGE. I CAN’T BUY MILK FOR MY DAUGHTER AND BOOKS AND CLOTHES FOR MY SON. I TAKE CARE OF MY OLD, SICK MOTHER.”
Mariam, domestic help and mother of two
“I had no house, no money. He threw me out. MY FAMILY REFUSED TO SUPPORT ME AS FOR THEM TRIPLE TALAQ IS A TABOO.”
Tania, divorced after she enrolled her daughter in a public school
“He first accused me that I wasn’t helping his mother in household chores. THEN HE ACCUSED ME OF BEING UNEDUCATED. THE FINAL REASON HE GAVE WAS THAT HE COULDN’T SUPPORT THREE CHILDREN AND A WIFE FINANCIALLY.”
Hasina Banu, whose husband divorced her over money