Muslim Women in India Are Claiming Their Rights
Zakia Soman co-founded the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement, or Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), to fight for justice and equal rights for Muslim women throughout India. BMMA focuses on education, health, security, and gender justice within families—after her own struggle to leave a sixteen-year-long abusive marriage, Zakia understands the oppressive social and cultural norms that make many women feel like they have no power, or even like they don’t deserve equality. She and her organization are fighting to change the culture and reprehensible laws that afflict these women. They are one of the leaders in the fight against triple talaq—a fight that has been years in the making.
Triple Talaq is the Sunni Islamic practice in which a husband can instantly divorce his wife simply by pronouncing talaq—the Arabic word for divorce—three times. The pronouncement can be verbal, in writing, or even via social media or text message. The basic practice is 1,400 years old, and it leaves women with no rights, no say, and often no property, home, or income. These six syllables destroy live—and as of July 2019, they are no longer legal in India, thanks to the persistent work of women’s rights advocates.
HOW THE MOVEMENT AGAINST TRIPLE TALAQ GAINED MOMENTUM
In 2012, BMMA organized the first national meeting focused on the issue of triple talaq; they invited 500 women from across the country to come share their personal experiences. Women like homemaker S. Bibi, who was fifty years old when her husband of twenty years ended their marriage with three words. N. Ansari was divorced over an email while she was pregnant. Mariyam was married at the age of fourteen, then divorced fifteen years later over WhatsApp. Each of these women was thrown out of her home. None of them received alimony. Mariyam was able to recover her clothes and other belongings, but N. Ansari, S. Bibi, and numerous other women were left with absolutely nothing. One by one the victims of triple talaq stood up and told their stories. Journalists who had come to report on the event were left in tears.
This landmark meeting created momentum for BMMA’s cause, but it also brought resistance from fundamentalists who threatened, harassed, and ran smear campaigns against Zakia and the other members of the movement. Their meetings were disrupted by protesters who said that women had no authority to speak about Islam. Zakia and her movement began to see the truly monumental task ahead of them: how do you take on a 1400-year-old custom and the entrenched forces that hold it in place?
Fortunately, they are not alone. “We are part of this movement called Musawah,” Zakia says, “from which we draw a lot of inspiration.” Musawah is a global organization that promotes a rights-based understanding of Islam, one in which women are, quite simply, human beings of equal worth and dignity. With this fundamental truth at its core, Musawah works with feminist Muslim activists in over forty countries, helping these women share their successful arguments, strategies, and materials with each other. Global Fund for Women has been supporting Musawah since their first meeting in 2009.
Zakia and her BMMA co-founder turned to Musawah for support during their fight against triple talaq. They attended Musawah’s courses on gender justice and strategy planning, where they met women from around the world who understood the issues they were facing, who were facing them too. “It is necessary for those who are fighting on the ground to know that you are part of something larger,” Zakia says. “Our work is so challenging; it helps knowing that women in other parts of the world are fighting with us.”
A WIN FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS, LED BY GLOBAL FUND FOR WOMEN PARTNERS
After working with Musawah, BMMA returned to the fight with a sharper perspective and a new strategy: in 2015 they published and circulated a book of case studies of triple talaq’s victims. They also conducted a national survey of the experiences of Muslim women in India, including statistics on triple talaq, polygamy, and whether a bride had consented to her marriage — the tradition of child brides often means that young women aren’t old enough to consent to their own marriages. The publication of these stories and research had an immense effect on public opinion and eventually helped bring triple talaq before India’s Supreme Court, where it was found unconstitutional in August of 2017. Later that year a temporary ordinance banned the practice, making it punishable by three years in jail.
Now, just last week in July 2019, India’s parliament voted to make the bill permanent—a huge win, secured in no small part by the persistence and tenacity of Musawah and other women’s human rights partners. Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated the victory on social media, tweeting: “Parliament abolishes Triple Talaq and corrects a historical wrong done to Muslim women. This is a victory of gender justice and will further equality in society.”
However, fundamentalist opposition organizations immediately challenged the law in court, with a vote expected soon on whether criminalizing triple talaq violates the constitutional rights of Muslim Men. And our partners will be there every step of the way, recognizing this is a crucial moment for women’s rights in India: “If we give up now,” says Zakia, “it would be historically wrong. This kind of momentum comes once in a lifetime.”
Years of passionate activism by organizations like BMMA and Musawah have helped archaic practices such as triple talaq, polygamy, and the marriage of under-age brides to be seen for the disgraces that they are—the unjust artifacts of a patriarchal society.