From Shah Bano to Shayara Bano

April 30,2016

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My 85-year-old mother is glued to ‘Kankar’ these days, the dramatised serial on ‘Zindagi’ channel, which is devoted to airing Pakistani plays and serials in India. In ‘Kankar’s latest episode, the female protagonist warns her husband that she will leave him if he hits her again – and believe it or not, he seems mighty surprised about that. So, separately, this ‘ma ka ladla’, or mother’s boy, asks his mummy, “I do love my wife…but don’t I have the ‘haq,’ the right, to hit her?” His mother is so disgusted with her son, she simply walks off the screen.

So as I start a new column with this newspaper, I wondered if I should tackle, once again, the extremely important subjects of Kashmir vs terrorism that India and Pakistan always talk about when they meet.

The two foreign secretaries, Subramaniam Jaishankar and Aizaz Chaudhury have just had a cup of tea in Delhi – and samosas too, I hope – and, in addition to these ‘core’ issues, also discussed why and what India’s alleged spy Kulbhushan Yadav was doing in Balochistan (to which the Indian foreign secretary is believed to have replied, “Which spy agency would put their agent in the field with their own passport, and without a visa?”), while the Indian side reiterated its intention to press the UN to sanction Masood Azhar, the head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror group.

But ‘Kankar’s brave female protagonist would not let me go. Interspersed with the Pakistani serial, I noticed, were Indian notices warning about the wide prevalence of domestic abuse in India, and advertising centres for help. That was interesting. The serial reminded me about Pakistan Punjab’s recent law against domestic violence.

And it brought to mind the story of Shayara Bano, the incredibly brave sociology graduate and mother of two who has challenged the ‘instantaneous triple talaq’ her husband sent to her in a letter after 14 years of marriage. It is a story that has all of India transfixed these days.

Shayara’s story is an ordinary one. The eldest of four siblings, she was married off to Rizwan, a property dealer who lives in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. She was forced to undergo several abortions because Rizwan didn’t believe in getting a vasectomy or tubectomy, both of which he believes are “bauhat haram” (in violation of societal codes). He didn’t allow her to visit her sister who lived half an hour away. He denies beating her, but finally, a few weeks ago, he told Shayara’s father to take her back and sent the triple talaq in a letter soon after.

Shayara went to the Supreme Court, demanding justice and equality under the eyes of the law. She says she is not challenging the Quran’s admissible right to divorce over 90 days, but the matter of ‘instantaneous triple talaq’ or talaq-e-bidat. Her mother, Feroza Begum, says if the Supreme Court rejects her daughter’s petition under the Muslim Personal Law, she will not give up but go through other “legal” routes.

Of course, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB)’s response came quickly. In response to the Supreme Court asking the government to submit a report on the status of women and the impact of personal laws on them, since 1989, the AIMPLB predictably said that personal laws were “inextricably interwoven with the religion of Islam” and the judiciary had no power to go into the validity of these laws.

The Indian media is full of stories these days telling us how the Prophet “denounced the pre-Islamic, patriarchal notion of the husband’s absolute right to divorce… It needs to be unequivocally stated that the talaq-e-bidat… finds no sanction in the Quran”, says the ‘Times of India’.

Meanwhile, the ‘Indian Express’ quotes Ataur Rehman, the recently retired imam in Kashipur tehsil in Uttarakhand near where Shayara Bano lives with her parents as saying, “The best way of giving talaq is for a Muslim man to utter it once, give the woman some time to mend her ways, utter it again, give her some more time, before making the third and final utterance. However, even if it is uttered thrice in one go, it is valid. Kami auraton ki bhi hoti hai. Bina wajah koi aadmi talaq nahi deta (Women are also at fault. No man gives talaq without a reason)”.

For those of us who cut our journalistic teeth reporting the Shah Bano case in 1985, Shayara Bano’s fight for equality is both catharsis and fulfilment. Shah Bano was in her sixties when her husband gave her the triple talaq and threw her out, saying she better go back to her parents or the local Wakf board for maintenance.

Shah Bano went to the Supreme Court instead. The Supreme Court ruled in her favour. And then that golden boy of Indian politics, Rajiv Gandhi, became frightened by imagined and real threats which amounted to saying ‘If you give in to Shah Bano, you will lose the Muslim vote’.

Guess what Rajiv Gandhi did? He passed a law in 1986 that overturned the Supreme Court judgement. (Of course, he lost the elections in 1989.) But now Shayara Bano is back, 31 years later, to avenge the earlier injustice done to countless other women by weak-kneed politicians.

Full disclosure: Like my mother, I’m glued to ‘Kankar’ too. But I’m also obsessed with following Shayara Bano’s journey as she becomes an equal citizen of India. And this time, the Supreme Court and/or India’s politicians better not disappoint her.

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist.Email: jomalhotragmail.comTwitter: jomalhotra


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