It all started with chicken curry, a delicacy her daughter loved. One fateful day 11 years ago, when Farhana Parveen carefully picked out small pieces from the chicken curry for her daughter, her husband was offended. Pregnant with her third child, Farhana had cooked a lavish meal for her in-laws and family. “I made five kilos of chicken curry along with biryani and some ten other items. But when my husband saw me feeding my daughter, he asked me why I had not given it to his mother instead. I was accused of being partial to my children,” says Farhana. The next morning, Salim left the house with his mother after uttering that dreaded word three times: “Talaq Talaq Talaq”.
When Farhana married Salim after the death of her first husband, she already had two children. She worked in a beauty parlour and had loaned Salim Rs 2 lakh to buy an autorickshaw. Today, as she struggles to provide for her five daughters, the eldest of whom is 12, she says with a laugh, “Don’t ask me how I live”.
On a rainy day in Mumbai recently, women and children gathered at Azad Maidan with streaky placards to protest not just the horrific triple talaq but to also say no to the equally proliferating instances of long-distance divorce through Skype or Facebook.
The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), which organised the all-India protest, recently published a booklet with detailed case studies of women from all over India who have been divorced in this cavalier fashion by husbands who simply say the word three times, use Skype, Facebook or even text messages to call off the marriage. BMMA hopes that the stark documentation will prompt some action.
Sayeda Banu lives in Pune. She was constantly harassed by her husband and his family for an apartment and money. When she went home to deliver her first child, her husband refused to take her back. “My daughter was eight months old. They would not let me inside. I waited all day on the road until the neighbours took me in,” says Sayeda. Her husband, a policeman, later sent her a talaqnama or divorce decree by post.
The common practice is to utter the word ‘talaq’ three times in front of any set of random witnesses and then get a Qazi to endorse it. In June this year, Badar Sayeed, the first woman to head the Wakf Board and the Tamil Nadu Minorities Commission, filed a public interest litigation in Madras High Court to stop Qazis from issuing talaq certificates. “It has been repeatedly held that any talaq, unless preceded by mediation or reconciliation, is invalid,” she pointed out.
The demand to ban oral divorce in India has not met with much success, despite years of struggle. Activists such as Asghar Ali Engineer and Qutub Jehan Kidwai of the Mumbai-based Institute of Islamic Studies have been fighting to codify Islamic personal law. A draft prepared last year sought to ban the triple talaq and restrict polygamy. In true Islamic law, say scholars, there is no place for saying talaq three times in one seating. Each utterance is meant to be followed by many months of waiting, when families and communities attempt reconciliation.
At the BMMA office in Kherwadi, neat little boards on the walls tell women their rights. “If the woman comes to us with a complaint, we first call the husband and try to resolve the issue,” says Nirmala from Mahila Shakti Mandal. BMMA gets at least 150 cases of harassment and oral divorce each year. Interestingly, the number of cases seems to be on the rise, with women coming within three or four months of their marriage, complaining of having been summarily divorced. In one case, says Khatoon Ghafoor Shaikh, who has been fighting against oral talaq for over two decades, the husband objected to his wife’s father calling to ask his daughter what she had cooked for dinner. He divorced her on the spot. Fatima Qureshi, activist, Samjhauta Mahila Mandal says it’s easy for the men to get away with it since they get endorsement from the Qazis.
Asks Khatoon Shaikh, if men can divorce their wives over phone, why can’t they get married over telephone too? Oral talaq is un-Islamic, inhuman and a violation of Koranic injunctions, says Noorjehan Safia Niaz of BMMA. The women are married off while still teenagers, and are not very literate. They are subjected to mental and physical torture, dowry demands, and the threat of divorce hangs over their heads like the proverbial Damocles’ sword.
Several Islamic countries such as Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen and Sudan have banned the instant triple talaq, as have neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. It’s time for India to act.