First Person: Willing to pick up burning coals

Updated: Dec 09, 2016, 09:10 IST | Feroze Mithiborwala |

Allahabad High Court’s slamming of triple talaq caps year of robust push of reforms, but like they say, picture abhi baaki hai mere dost

With the Allahabad High Court asserting that triple talaq violates the rights of Muslim women, the reformist movement gets more ballast. It is a significant victory in a year which has seen us fight on so many fronts, chipping away at patriarchal mindsets, striving to change the paradigm so to speak of Muslim women’s rights in India.

Earlier this year, we started a forum called ‘Muslim men against Triple Talaq’ and in just 24 hours we had 250 signatures from men across the country. Using that as a barometer, we could sense the anger and need for change within the community. The past few months have been remarkable in every way for the reformist struggle in the Muslim community.

We launched a very successful Haji Ali struggle. Then, secular liberals spoke up when the Zakir Naik problem arose. Naik represents a fanatical, supremacist ideology and we held a public meeting denouncing it. It was a tense atmosphere, as a lot of Muslims were very emotional and believed Naik was being persecuted. Yet, we spoke out in favour of secular, liberal thought even in that simmering cauldron of pro-Naik sentiment.

We also stand on the brink of launching a national forum called ‘Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy’, in mid-December.

We have worked closely with Muslim women’s groups, through different struggles and also used social media to get more youngsters involved in gender justice efforts within the community. There have been so many debates, some in the public forum, and others in private gatherings, homes, get togethers, which proves that people are really rethinking and talking about aspects within. There have been debates about triple talaq, polygamy, and halala at various levels. People have become brave enough to pick up these burning coals. These are the coals that they would even refrain from merely touching before.

There were divides even within the orthodox, conservative groups in Islam. This is because people realised that triple talaq is simply atrocious. Brothers and fathers have seen their sisters and daughters suffer because of triple talaq. Men come with their daughters, who have been victims of triple talaq to lawyers, they have felt the pain and seen the sadness, the injustice, that triple talaq brings about.

The reformist movement is gathering traction within the Muslim middle class, forming divides within. How can we forget that there is a break within the Dawoodi Bohra community with reference to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) too? This year, we have seen strong protests against FGM. Most heartening is the fact that most of these movements have been led by Muslim women. Let us remember that it is their struggle. They have been supported by sensible men of all communities but in the end, this is their fight and they need to lead from the front for this.

What we are asking now is that people take a categorical position when it comes to equitable gender rights, these should be non-negotiable. Everybody will have to take a position. Earlier, we had seen the secular too running away from powder keg problems or pandering at times to extremist views, though they believed quite the opposite but may have been afraid to say so. No longer is this possible or feasible, because Muslim women’s rights are becoming part of the national narrative and these are going to continue simmering, becoming an election issue in 2019.

There is going to be so much more in the next year. The battle is relentless but we are heartened by milestones, which I like to call ‘smilestones’ like the Allahabad High Court’s observation. We will rest a bit on these ‘smilestones’, but we must continue because they are not enough. The end will come when triple talaq and other laws that discriminate against women are banned by an Act of Parliament.

Till then, I, like other gender justice activists can only say:
The woods are lovely dark and deep;
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.”

Feroze Mithiborwala is a Mumbai-based gender justice activist and founder of the Haji Ali Sab Ke Liye movement.

As told to Hemal Ashar

Not above the Constitution
Asserting that triple talaq violates the rights of Muslim women, the Allahabad High Court on Thursday termed it as unconstitutional. The court also said that no Personal Law Board is above the Constitution. The practice has also been challenged in the Supreme Court by several women and the central government has told the top court that the practice is against gender justice, equality and the Constitution. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has defended the practice, saying it is better to divorce a woman than kill her. The rights bestowed by religion can't be questioned in a court of law, it has said.

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