MUMBAI — Afreen Rehman, 28, is one of five Muslim women who recently took her case to India's Supreme Court demanding a ban on a controversial practice known as "Triple Talaq," or instant divorce.
Afreen says she had been married just two months when her in-laws started harassing her about her dowry. "My husband and other in-laws started mentally harassing me, saying that he has a law degree and that any other girl would have brought a large cash dowry and a big car while I brought nothing," she says.
Afreen's in-laws sent her back to her parents' home. And then she received notice of divorce in the mail. "It was in his own handwriting and was signed by two witnesses. Before pronouncing the divorce three times he made horrible, baseless allegations against me, things I can't even repeat in front of anyone," she says. "But the point is, how you can divorce someone like this, in an expedited letter?"
"Some people are told about the divorce by telegram, or Skype, or even in text messages."
Afreen's husband had performed Triple Talaq. But uttering the word "talaq" three times, he instantly divorced her, without her knowledge or agreement.
She was shocked, but soon realized she wasn't alone. "This is being done to many women," Afreen says. "It is only when it happens to you that you realize what is happening. Some people are told about the divorce by telegram, or Skype, or even in text messages."
Jilted but determined, the young woman decided to fight back. "So I challenged it," she says. "Not just for myself, but for every woman, so that no woman suffers like I do. Triple Talaq is unacceptable and it should stop."
Awaiting the verdict
Over six days last week, India's Supreme Court heard petitions from women and groups, including Afreen, who are seeking to abolish Triple Talaq. Now, as both sides await the court verdict with bated breath, a nationwide debate is firing up.
Zakia Soman, founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women's Movement), is one of the petitioners. She says the practice is both un-Islamic and unconstitutional, and must go. "It is banned in several Muslim countriesaround the world over precisely because the Koran has no mention of Triple Talaq. In fact, as per the Koran, the marriage is a social contract with equal rights to the husband and wife ,and equal rights to the husband and wife to seek divorce," she explains.
"Muslim scholars largely agree that performing Triple Talaq in one go is prohibited, and even punishable."
Soman's view, based on the Koran, is that couples should go through an elaborate reconciliation procedure lasting at least three months. "If that doesn't work, they should even try mediation before resorting to something as drastic as Talaq," she says.
Muslim scholars largely agree that performing Triple Talaq in one go is prohibited, and even punishable, as it violates the divorce procedure laid down in the Koran. Talaq should be uttered on three separate occasions, they say, allowing time to resolve differences.
Mohammad Saleem is a member of the Muslim Personal Law Board, a coalition of Muslim organizations defending Triple Talaq.
"The problem is ignorance," he says. "Islam discourages divorce per se. Divorce is the most disliked among allowed things in Islam. But people do it. It's like alcohol. It's prohibited in Islam, but still some Muslims drink it. This is not an area where governments or courts can intervene and decide. It has to be resolved at the community level."
"Triple Talaq does not satisfy the standards of gender equality, gender dignity and gender justice."
In this case, however, government has gotten involved, throwing its weight behind the women who are seeking the ban. "We have taken our stand on the basis of the constitution," Justice Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters. "The Indian constitution gives women the right to life, equality and dignity without discrimination, and Triple Talaq does not satisfy the standards of gender equality, gender dignity and gender justice."
Prime Minister Modi has chimed in as well, frequently raising the issue of Triple Talaq at public rallies.
Indian law currently respects Muslim Personal Law, a set of Islamic rules governing family life and other personal issues of Muslims such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. But with its slogan of "One Country, One Law," Modi's Hindu Nationalist BJP Party opposes Muslim Personal Laws, and favors a Uniform Civil Code that would apply to all Indians.
Mohammad Saleem of the Muslim Personal Law Board sees that as an attack on religious freedom. "Clearly this is a ploy," he says. "They want to pave the way for a Uniform Civil Code, and create divisions among communities. But personal laws are protected by the constitution. It is a matter of religious freedom and they can't take it away from us."
Muslims are not, however, united on the issue. Some, like author and activist Sadia Dehlavi, want to ban not only Triple Talaq but also Personal Laws. "The reform is never going to come from the Muslim community," she says. "It is time for the courts to step in and to do away with the personal laws and implement Uniform Civil Code that guarantees the same right to Muslim women as to all women in the country and there should be one law that protects all women across faiths."