This week, the government of India is to table a bill in Parliament that proposes to make the “triple talaq” a criminal offense. The bill has already been cleared by the cabinet and the government hopes to get parliamentary clearance soon for it to become a law.
Triple talaq is a divorce procedure in the Muslim community that gives men the right to divorce their wives by uttering the word talaq (divorce) three times. The much-disputed practice has been banned in many Islamic countries worldwide, but is still practiced by some Indian Muslims, since the constitution allows religions to follow their own laws in personal matters such as marriage, divorce and property inheritance.
In spite of the different schools of thought over interpretations of the Koran, most people argue that there is no mention of triple talaq, or talaq-e-biddat, in the religious text. However, the practice is still common, depriving women of any say in the matter of divorce. In such conditions of unilateral divorce by their husbands, women are usually left homeless and abandoned.
Current legal status
To put an end to this discriminatory practice, the Indian Supreme Court in a landmark ruling in August declared the practice unconstitutional, and advised the government to enact a law to this affect. Consequently, the government drafted the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights of Marriage) Bill, which criminalizes instant divorce and makes it a non-bailable offense that can lead to imprisonment of up to three years upon conviction.
The bill also envisages granting the custody of any minor children to the affected woman and makes it mandatory for the husband to pay maintenance to his wife and child support towards any children.
Voices of dissent
The government has been pushing for the legislation as a step toward gender justice and gender equality and empowering women. However, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which has done very little to stop this discriminatory practice, has woken up to condemn the law as contradictory to the rights of women.
While I agree to the point that any law should involve the stakeholders in drafting of the provisions, which was not done in this case, I also feel that the AIMPLB had enough time to introduce internal reforms to abolish such discriminatory practices. If the AIMPLB had cared for the interests of Muslim women, the issue would have long ago been sorted without any government interference.
Analysis of the law
The bill will probably be passed by Parliament in the current session, since the government holds a majority. However, since the law involves dealing with the lives of people, its provisions on criminalization need to be reconsidered on many parameters, including the long-term outcomes.
There are many basic questions so far unanswered. If the husband is imprisoned for instant divorce, how will he provide maintenance to his ex-wife and children? If the divorce becomes void and the man has been jailed, can the court or law ensure a cordial relationship between the couple, in which one party has to serve a prison term because of the complaint of the other?
The bill also fails to clarify the important issue of alimony. Such issues as child custody and financial independence for women are of utmost priority to ensure gender balance in society and relationships.
I agree that instant divorce makes a mockery of religion and the concept of gender equality, and it is essential that any such matters be approached with extra sensitivity, involving all stakeholders and experts to avoid any loopholes.
The repercussions of criminalizing instant divorce should also be considered. Unless a multiple-angle analysis of the long-term benefits and ill effects of the law are considered, its intent will remain superficial to bringing any relief for women on the ground.