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 countries around 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."
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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