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Published in the 16-31 May 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Nikahnama: change at heart can change women’s lot

By Firoz Bakht Ahmed

The Milli Gazette Online

As the nation discusses model nikahnama, Indian Muslim men have been issuing talaq through e-mails, letters or simply over the phone while the umpteen personal law boards have no clear answers for this problem. The steady stream of victims of dowry harassment, arbitrary talaqs, domestic violence, child marriages, sexual harassment and cheating goes unabated while the boards mushroom. 

Unfortunately a wrong impression is being created that the AIMPLB’s model nikahnama is something revolutionary. It is not as the board is a conglomerate of orthodox clerics, politicians, retired civil servants and others who cannot claim to represent the whole Muslim community.
The model nikahnama does not address the infirmities and unfair inflictions on our sisters by the misuse of talaq. The changes in the model nikahnma, are far from adequate. Unless the triple talaq is rooted out, there’s nothing to rejoice for the Muslim community.

The nikahnama gimmick can’t ameliorate Muslim women’s lot as it’s just a cosmetic measure taken by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) amid pressure by the media and public opinion. The plight of Muslim women will continue to be the same as it has been before this step. The fact is that Muslim men are so addicted to exploiting their women that a thousand of such steps won’t change their lot.

The AIMPLB is a tower of Babel whose members are incapable of taking a bold unanimous decision. Two board members were promised Rajya Sabha seats by the then ruling BJP had a smooth Babri Masjid transaction taken place with Swami Jyendra Saraswati.

The very fact that the AIMPLB is not prepared to condemn the appallingly unjust pronouncement of triple talaq shows that it hasn’t really addressed the faers of Muslim women. This form of talaq is neither recognized by the Quran nor by many Islamic countries, including Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran Iraq, Bangldesh and Tunisia besides others. 

All that AIMPLB has managed so far is tarnish the image of Indian Muslims. Most negative statements the media quotes on behalf of the board are taken as the viewpoint of the community. The truth is that an average Muslim is not governed by them and what the board says is non-issue for many of them.

Muslim woman is still at crossroads vis-a-vis provisions relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, maintenance and custody of children. The board should tackle these issues in a bold way so as they do not remain a one-side male domain.

No one is worried about Muslim women’s dwindling literacy figures and their uplift. Muslim fundamentalists throughout the world and more prominently in Muslim dominated states, are trying to make Muslim women faceless, voiceless and nameless.

The bane of Muslim woman is that time and again, she is dragged into one controversy or another. Be it the debate of Muslim women to be allowed to pray inside the mosques or the Shah Bano imbroglio or the case of the young Ameenas being "exported" to lustful Arab shaikhs, politicians, Islam- baiters as well as the clerics all try to eke out political mileage out of it. 

Why the issue of the model nikahnama got blown out of proportion, is because of the fact that the AIMPLB wanted to catch the eye. But there is no proof that the Muslim community by and large has accepted this “model” nikahnama. Muslim men will continue divorcing their women using the abominable triple talaq declaration in a single sitting in clear violation of what Allah ordered in the Qur’an. Besides, the AIMPLB has said nothing new. All that the so-called "revolutionary" nikahnama contains is nothing new and has already been part of Muslim Sharia. The issue is how to force Muslim men adhere to those guidelines and how to punish those who violate them and persecute their wives.

Chances are that nothing would change except the status of some opportunistic members of the board who hobnob with politicians of all hues. Many AIMPLB members have no credibility as they are seen as brokers who play vote-bank politics to acquire state patronage for themselves and their coteries. At this very moment one of them is trying hard to project himself as the next chief minister of Bihar when he is not even a member of the state legislative assembly. Many of the board members are characterised by petty-mindedness and narrow outlook so out of tune with the reality in our community and country.

The most important feature — divorce — is left without a clear guideline. The nikahnama only says that the couple will try to avoid divorce as much as possible. Muslim activists and women's groups have long been demanding reform of the divorce law. Also, women do not have a right to divorce. Instead, they have to resort to a process called Khula in which they forego some of their rights and properties in order to get wayward husbands’ permission. Nothing has been mentioned in this nikahnama about the women getting tafwiz-e-talaq, that is, wive’s right to divorce their incapacitated and worthless husbands, which is allowed by the Shariah but seldom practised. 

Besides, the model nikahnama has mentioned the marriageable age as 15 that can further be reduced to two or three years. This opens the gate of child marriages which is illegal and inhuman. The board should clearly formulate a policy on this issue. The board is also silent about another prevalent vice in the Muslim community: denial of inheritance to women. If Muslim women get their share of ancestral property, a lot of their problems will be solved as they will not be reduced to a state of beggary after divorce and will command much more respect in our society.

The model nikahnama has also failed to take a clear line that mahr should be paid immediately to brides after marriage. Nowadays the intention is never to pay and the husband tries to cajole the wife to forego this right. Moreover, some parents force very high amounts as mahr as a provision to prevent husbands to divorce in future as they will be unable to pay the huge amounts registered in the marriage document as mahr.

For a start, the model nikahnama is never going to deliver unless there is an Act like the Shah Bano Act in 1986. Without such statutory cover the nakahnama will remain a peice of paper and a moral sermon at its best. Another important thing is that members of the board must stop dabbling in matters political as this robs them of much of their credibility and respect.

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