Striving for Gender Justice: Overcoming Obstacles
By Ram Puniyani, The Milli Gazette Online
Published Online: Sep 03, 2014
While, on one hand, a PIL has been filed for Uniform Civil Code (UCC), there is another significant development in this direction. This relates to the personal laws of Muslim community. It is claimed that Muslim women are subject to more domination and gender injustice. While the personal laws of different religious communities are not giving adequate justice to women, the popular focus is mainly on the Muslim community. This is despite the fact that there are a number of Muslim women’s groups which are striving for gender-just civil codes within the Muslim community. The recently released Nikahnama (Marriage Deed) by Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) is one such leap by Muslim women to overcome the shackles of the patriarchal grip on the Muslim society. The model nikahnama released by BMMA on 23 June 2014 is an important step in this direction of empowering Muslim women. It tries to offer the solution to various problems faced by Muslim women. It outlines various steps which a large section of Muslim women is longing for.
This Nikahnama calls for registration of all marriages, calls for denial of second marriage unless there is a valid ground like death of the first wife etc, calls for minimum age of marriage for girls to be 18, (for boys 21), wife should have due place in the household even after the death of husband, divorce should be permitted in the physical presence of both husband and wife and it should be supported by legal documents, and in case of women demanding divorce, her voice should be respected and she should be allowed to keep personal belongings.
The notion that the present plight of Muslim women is due to Islam holds no water. Islamic scholars and reformers like Asghar Ali Engineer contributed tremendously to the many basic points of this Nikahnama, which is a part of Muslim Personal Law. The major highlight of this draft is that it represents the opinions of thousands of Muslim women due to whose participation the drafting of this one took final shape. The future challenge is that this Nikahnama has to be made acceptable in the community. A major campaign has to be launched in support of this.
While the directive principles of our Constitution call that the State should attempt to evolve UCC, the issue came to the forefront only in the wake of the historic Shah Bano judgment, where a Muslim divorcee women was granted the maintenance by the court. The opposition to this court judgment came from the orthodox sections of the community and the judgment was reversed by an act of Parliament introduced by the Rajiv Gandhi Government. This was a serious mistake.
Women’s movement has been asking for gender justice and many a concerned group has been struggling for this. As we know the personal laws are a continuation of what the British had allowed and pertain only to marriage, divorce, custody of children and inheritance. While the civil and criminal laws are the same for all the religious communities, the personal laws of many communities are based on the traditional customs, primarily patriarchal. The severe flaw in these laws is that they are heavily weighted in favour of men. While initially there was some lack of clarity about the concept of uniformity, women’s movement in due course called for gender justice as the basis of these rather than mere uniformity.
Uniformity can very well be an amalgam of unjust laws picked from different traditions and put together. That’s not something which women’s movement wants; that’s something which is not in consonance with the concept of gender parity and that’s not what a civilized society should have. The twin aspect of the need for newer personal laws has been the gender equality in front of law and their introduction through a process of social reform rather than imposition by dictat from the top.
The efforts of Muslim women’s groups face obstacles due to the domination of orthodox elements in the community. This situation is worst confounded due to the sense of physical insecurity following communal violence. During the last several decades the percentage of Muslims getting killed in the communal violence is close to 90 percent, while their percentage in the population is close to 14 percent. Communal violence is also the ground where women from minority community are subjected to serious sexual and physical abuse. This is what creates the sense of social insecurity, weakening their movements in a serious manner. It’s not that Muslim women don’t want reforms or parity in social matters; it’s not that Muslim men are able to hegemonize the situation due to religion or due to what Qur’an says. The issue at stake is the physical insecurity due to which Muslim women’s groups have remained comparatively weak and unable to assert themselves within the community and society.
There surely are a number of groups from amongst the Muslim community asking for equality, their movement is unable to get strength due to the cancerous phenomenon of communal violence and its social-psychological impact.
The Hindu right-wing’s cry for UCC is not because it is seeking gender parity. They have found that UCC can be used as a political tool to beat the Muslim community with so it has been made a basic part of the so-called ‘Hindutva’ agenda.
This needs to be seen from another angle also. As a matter of fact the term Uniform has to be qualified in proper perspective. It should not be a compilation of different unjust laws from different religious customs. What we need is an overhaul of the personal laws in all religious communities and that the new laws have to be formulated on the grounds of gender justice. And secondly, they have to be evolved through the process of discussion and debate within communities, where women, who are the major sufferers of the prevalent laws, should have a major role in formulating them.
The step by BMMA shows the way for the communities to march in the direction of change in personal laws. On one hand, this Nikhnama has been evolved through an extensive process of community participation, on the other it articulates the aspirations of Muslim women at large. Surely, the laws pertaining to other religious communities also need to go through the process of similar exercise where women have a major say and the laws then act as a major mechanism for overcoming the patriarchal norms on the society. Such positive steps by social groups need a welcome modification to further broader participation to make it more representative in character.