There is bad news for Indian Muslim women. The seventeenth conference of the Muslim personal law board has stated that there is no question of women’s equal rights; women should be satisfied with the rights granted them by Muslim religious law. This reasserts the inferior status of women in the community, their lack of value symbolized by the fact that in court a woman’s evidence is given half the weight of a man’s. The marriage and divorce laws are particularly discriminatory. Polygamy is legal in the community with the right given to men to divorce a wife verbally. The influence of the personal law board’s pronouncements upon the minority community is overwhelming. The stand the board has taken will effectively strangle all moves towards change within the community. It is really a double blow. The board has formulated its opposition to civil law and has reasserted the backward, underprivileged status of Muslim women at a time when women’s equality and rights are a prioritized issue. More tragically, it may have throttled the impulse within the Muslim community that showed that Indian Muslim women were looking for fairer laws in divorce.
This is not the only regressive pronouncement by the personal law board. It has expressed its resistance to the modernization of the syllabus in madrasas, reconfirming the adequacy of a purely religious education for the community’s children. This would mean cutting off the minority community as a whole — and not just its women — from a plural culture and modern education specifically on the basis of religion. This is reservation in reverse, and can only be damaging to Indian Muslims and to inter-community relations.
Yet it would be wrong to place the responsibility of these decisions solely at the door of the law board. Its hardening of attitude has an immediate context. The clue is provided by its condemnation of the government’s campaign against cow slaughter and the state’s allegations regarding the links of madrasas with the Inter-Services Intelligence. While no secular state can accept the decisions of the Muslim personal law board, the secular credentials of the state itself have become suspect. If Gujarat and its aftermath are extreme manifestations of polarization, there remain the constant, daily reminders of difference, direct and indirect. Both the state and the majority community are complicit in reducing law and order problems into religion-based hostility. That this perverse culture has permeated the most innocent spheres of national life was made obvious by the colour and rhetoric surrounding the Indian cricket team’s win over Pakistan’s in the World Cup. The siege mentality is the greatest hardening agent. It can only be hoped that the Muslim personal law board’s pronouncements are countered with reason and firmness, instead of being used to prove again the community’s intransigence.