Move to end polygamy divides Indian Muslims

Petition claims minority group's marital practices are unconstitutional and should be made illegal
Move to end polygamy divides Indian Muslims

Muslims take part in a protest rally on March 3 against a bill to abolish verbal divorce among Muslims in India. (Photo by IANS)

A new confrontation between religious and social organizations has broken out in India as its top court seeks the government's response to a move to ban polygamy among Muslims.

The Supreme Court of India on March 26 decided to examine the validity of polygamy and several other Muslim marital practices while hearing a petition by two women's organizations and pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ashwini Upadhyay.

The petitioners said the prevalent practices of polygamy and Nikah Halala were unconstitutional and should be declared illegal. The court now awaits the government's response before deciding whether to proceed further on the issue. Nikah Halala involves a female Muslim divorcee marrying someone else, consummating the marriage and then getting a divorce in order to make it allowable to remarry her previous husband.

The petitioners also said Nikah Mutah (temporary marriage) and Nikah Misyar (the renouncing of marital rights such as living together, the wife's rights to housing and maintenance money, and the husband's right to homekeeping and access) do not respect women's dignity and rights but only provide sexual pleasure for men and should be declared illegal.

Several Muslim groups described the move as interference in the religious affairs of Muslims.

Maulana Khalid Rashid Farangi, a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, said it is unfortunate that polygamy is being considered unlawful when live-in relationships are becoming a trend in India.

"The constitution guarantees minority communities including Muslims [the freedom] to follow their own personal laws, but the internal matters of Muslims are now being questioned. This has caused anxiety among Muslims as Islamic laws are presented in completely the wrong manner in the court," said the cleric.

Irfan Yaseen, a Muslim student in New Delhi, said the way in which the personal laws of Muslims are being targeted one by one is fishy.

He suspects the governing BJP is trying to erode "all Islamic principles and practices and present them in a way that they look anti-human and anti- women."

He said the government cannot ban what Islam has permitted as it would cause a lot of anxiety among Muslims.

Yaseen said the government could have asked Muslim religious organizations to reach a consensus over whether practices like polygamy should be restrained.

However, several women's organizations have welcomed the move to ban polygamy.

Zakia Soman from Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim women's movement) said the plan is "a ray of hope" for Muslim women who have been victims of polygamy. She said no government data is available about how many women have been victimized by such practices.

Sabiha Yaseen, a women's activist in New Delhi, said rackets were run in the name of Nikah Halala where a woman who wants to remarry her husband after divorce is asked to pay a huge amount so that she could be married to a man for one night. "This is highly unfortunate and needs to be stopped," she said.

She said the government has been taking serious measures to end the sad plight of Muslim women.

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Last August, the Supreme Court banned instant verbal divorce or triple talaq, a practice that allows Muslim men to divorce their wives by just saying the word talaq (divorce) three times.  

The court asked the government to pass a bill to ban the practice, but the issue is pending in parliament after opposition parties objected and demanded the case be sent to a select committee.

Across all religious communities in India, more women remain divorced than men, according to census data. However, the percentage is higher among Muslims. For every Muslim man living divorced, four women remain divorced.

Muslims account for 172 million or 14 percent of India's population, followed by Christians at 29 million or 2.3 percent. Hindus account for 966 million or 80 percent.  

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