For more than a decade, Muslim women’s organizations in India have been fighting for changes in the body of Islamic law that governs marriage, divorce and the property rights of women. But as the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board held its annual convention in Mumbai last week, the battle lines had never been so starkly drawn. Although the Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens irrespective of their religion, Muslims are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937. Attempts to apply a common civil code have often been viewed as interference in the practices of India’s largest religious minority.
The Personal Law Board is one of the country’s more influential Muslim groups. Its chiefly male membership of clerics and scholars has rejected proposals to change Muslim personal law, and is opposing a demand by women’s groups that marriages be legally registered, as is mandatory for non-Muslims.
Zeenat Shaukat Ali, a professor of Islamic Studies at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and the author of “Marriage and Divorce in Islam,” is blunt in her assessment of the current situation.
“We are asking for codification of the legal system within the framework of Koranic law,” she said. “The Koran does not support a system that is controlled by the patriarchy, and the government has to treat this matter on a war footing if they truly mean to bring about gender justice.”
The changes that women’s organizations have been discussing for more than a decade — with major meetings held across India over the last three years — include the compulsory registration of marriages with the state, the abolition of the triple talaq on the grounds that violates the Koran and the establishment of a more reliable system of financial support for wives.
“There is no political will to change this law even though we are a secular democratic republic,” said Ms. Ali. “Politicians refuse to move ahead because some males have objected.”