The rules are being laid out. “Only one person from each party will speak, and one at a time,” asserts a petite young woman seated cross-legged in a crisp white salwar-kameez, a parrot green lacy dupatta thrown across her slender shoulders. “Anybody creating a ruckus will be thrown out,” she warns.
The scene is played out not in a classroom but a quiet old compound in a Muslim ghetto in Bandra (East), Mumbai. The two-room rented house is where a Shariat adalat meets on four days from Monday every week to decide cases related mostly to women.
For Muslims, Shariat courts, which decide on domestic, social and marital issues, have long been the preserve of the qazi, mufti and maulvi. But since July this year, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) in Maharashtra (in Pune and Mumbai), Gujarat and Tamil Nadu has occupied the driver’s seat to redirect the fate of Muslim women. By next year, more states could join the bandwagon.
The half-a-dozen-or-so women in each Shariat adalat are experienced social workers trained in Quranic law, says Noorjehan Safiya Niaz, co-founder of BMMA. “There is a strong need to serve justice to the poorest of Muslim women, especially since the Muslim personal law has not been codified for the large part and is open to interpretation. Moreover, Shariat courts run by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) are intimidating to women. Their procedures are cumbersome and unilateral talaq is acceptable.”
The BMMA-run Shariat courts on the other hand recognise only talaq-e-ahsan that can be sought or given by the husband and wife. “The couple is counselled over three months — as permitted by the Quran — to help them arbitrate and reconcile,” Niaz explains. “At times the intervention of the qazi or mufti is sought and if the marriage is found irreparable, partners go their own way with a valid certificate of divorce.” The certification, she says, is legal.
Mufti Abdul Rehman Milli, convenor of the All India Milli Council, elaborates that the Quran allows two chances to revoke a talaq within three months of pronouncing it. “Often a man regrets his words within a fortnight and takes back the talaq,” says Mufti Milli. The Mumbai BMMA adalat has seen some happy turnarounds.
A 20-something burqa-clad woman with a smile and twinkle in the eye steps forward with her mother and sister. She accuses her mother-in-law of forcing her to undergo three abortions, besides mental torment. A few weeks ago she was jolted by a talaq statement from her husband in a courier packet.
After several rounds of talks between BMMA members and the woman’s in-laws, she agrees to return to her matrimonial home. “But if they torture me I will return to this court,” she says, signing the statement with a flourish, her chubby fingers marked with hennaed checks.
The energetic pint-sized recorder then turns to a young burqa-clad widow to her left. “Take off your naqab (face mask) before presenting your case,” she says firmly. The woman meekly obeys, disrobing a puffy face fraught with strain.
“I don’t want to stay with my in-laws,” she declares. “They don’t speak to me. I feel suffocated.”
Next to her squats her mother-in-law, a mild mannered, middle-aged burqa-clad woman accompanied by boisterous daughters, sons-in-law and an authoritarian elderly neighbour — all of whom are ordered out of the room (but stay put) for interrupting proceedings.
The arguments are over custody of the young widow’s four-year-old son and the return of her jewellery and possessions by the in-laws. “I will not part with my child for even an hour — I don’t want your maintenance or money,” she says.
Khatoon aapa, the dignified BMMA convenor, Mumbai, glides in from her inner sanctum to stem the arguments. Lightly touching the young woman’s shoulder, she urges her to be reasonable. “The child is also theirs,” she says softly. “If you go to a court of law you could spend years fighting a custody battle.” Khatoon aapa suggests that a settlement be arrived at only after a few days of thought.
It’s not easy running a Muslim women’s court. The members are often dubbed home-breakers. Last month, women of the BMMA Shariat court in Ahmedabad had to fight off the ire of Muslim right wingers in Godhra.
The courts have also triggered debates on their efficacy and related issues. “The (BMMA) women running the Shariat court are very capable of handling social issues,” says Qazi Moosa Mushtaq Ahmed Ansari, one of the few clerics in Mumbai occasionally called in for advice. But Mufti Milli believes that while women social workers are equipped to tackle social issues, “no woman has been able to match a qazi” in Muslim personal law.
Some — like Hyderabad-based Abdul Rahim Qureshi, spokesperson, All India Muslim Personal Law Board — hold that being trained in a madrasa would make women Shariat adalats more effective. But Zakiya Rahat, principal, Jamia Aisha Niswan madrasa for women in Hyderabad, who trained for five years in a Malegaon madrasa, stresses training is often deeply chauvinistic.
On the issue of divorce, for instance, the argument continues. “Talaq often results from small misunderstandings, often fuelled by in-laws,” says Jamila Khan, BMMA’s Gujarat convenor who is a part of the Ahmedabad Shariat court.
Traditionally, when a man pronounces talaq he needs neither witness nor money. But when a woman asks for release from her marriage through a Quranic option called khula, she has to visit the Shariat court with two male witnesses, and the rigours don’t always end there.
The practice of khula also figures in the women’s courts. “I have been seeing an increasing number of applications for khula,” says Qureshi of the personal law board.
It is not uncommon for men to persuade their wives to ask for a khula, says Munisa Bushra, a physics lecturer in Mumbai who had sought khula from her husband. She returned the 50 grams of gold that her husband had given her in mehr (dowry).
“If a man divorces his wife he has to give her three months of maintenance and cannot take back the mehr,” says principal Rahat. “But if a woman asks for a divorce she foregoes the maintenance and has to return the mehr.”
Clearly, the women-run Shariat adalats have an uphill task. But the women at the steering wheel are not complaining.