India’s Supreme Court may soon take one of its most interesting and far-reaching court decisions, one that could go down as pivotal in Indian history.
At stake is the Muslim practice of “triple talaq,” in which a Muslim man can legally divorce his wife almost instantaneously by uttering the Arabic word for divorce, talaq (طلاق), three times in a row, or by indicating his intention to end the marriage in similar ways, for example, by saying “I reject you.” Many traditional Islamic interpretations of Islamic Law, especially in South Asia, allege this is legal, with some scholars deriving arguments in favor of this in part from verse 229 of Surah 2 of the Quran which states: “Divorce is twice; then keep her honorably or release her virtuously.” There are numerous alternative understandings of divorce within Islam that do not support the notion of triple talaq, and it is banned or not practiced (due to creative interpretations of sharia) in many Muslim countries including Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Malaysia, Iran, and Pakistan. Interestingly, the Wahhabi movement has also been opposed to the practice.
However, in India, Muslim personal law is governed independently, and there is no single civil law code for all of India’s citizens. The body that regulates Indian Sunni Muslim law (Shias have a separate body) is the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which has strenuously resisted any attempts to modernize Muslim personal law. Any attempts to change Indian Muslim personal law has been met with claims by Muslim religious leaders that they constituted assaults upon the rights and freedoms of the Muslim minority. In the particularly infamous Shah Bano case of 1985, a Muslim woman, Shah Bano won an alimony case in the Indian Supreme Court, the provisions of which were opposed by orthodox Sunni Muslim clerics. As a result, the Congress Party, which dominated Parliament at that time, passed a bill to overturn the case, a move widely derided as pandering; liberal Muslims, Shias, and most Hindus supported the court decision.
Presently, the Supreme Court is considering whether to declare the practice of triple talaq unconstitutional on the basis of a petition filed by a 35-year-old woman, Shayara Bano, who was divorced in this manner via letter by her husband while she was visiting her parents. She had demanded a total ban on the practice, alleging it allows women to be treated like “chattel.”
Asma Zehra, a female member of AIMPLB’s executive committee, said that Muslims would oppose any attempt to change Muslim personal law, and alleged that the current situation was an attempt by the government to implement a uniform civil code that would apply to all individuals.
The continued provision of the triple talaq, as other aspects of Muslim civil law in the Indian law codes has been contested by Muslim reformists, many liberals, as well as the nationalist, Hindu right, and there are frequent calls for a uniform civil code. The eventual implementation of such a code is also part of the platform of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
As the Supreme Court looks into the case and moves toward a decision, there is bound to be controversy from multiple sources within Indian society, as no matter what decision the court takes, there will be many disappointed people, whether traditionalists or reformers.