For 30-year-old Shameem, all the furious discussions about the pros and cons of the standard nikahnama (marriage contract) released recently by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) in Bhopal makes little sense. She sits quietly for a long time, in a room where everyone else is talking. Suddenly, she can take it no more. "I have wanted to divorce my husband for the last four years", she shouts; her eyes the only part of her face that is visible angry and red with tears. What are her rights, she wants to know.
Shameem's case is not unusual. It is not just the story of a poor Muslim woman who does not know her rights. It is the story of poor women of every community who do not know their rights. If they live in an abusive or violent situation in their marital homes, they do not know how to get out.
Increasing the problem
For Muslim women, their being a minority compounds the problem. After the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, several Muslim women living in the densely populated areas of central Mumbai, told me that they had chosen to tolerate physical violence and abuse at home rather than report their husbands to the police or to take any action under the law. Why? Because they had lost all faith in the law enforcing machinery and feared that once the police were given access to their lives, they would never leave them alone.
For the average Muslim woman, a Board like the AIMPLB makes no difference to her daily existence. Thus, the Board's version of the nikahnama also has little meaning for her. Yet, in the long run, the very fact that a body like the AIMPLB drafted a nikahnama that suggests that the custom of the man declaring "talaq" at one go and divorcing his wife should be discouraged is a small step in the right direction.
The Board does not make law. It is in fact just a coalition of around 400 representatives from different sects that came into existence as recently as 1972. At most, it can suggest a course for the community to follow.
The positive aspect of the debate generated over the nikahnama is that it has once again drawn attention to the reality of the lives of millions of Muslim women like Shameem. One also sees a very remarkable difference between the debate today and the one in 1985 over the Shahbano case. At that time, a judgment on maintenance for an indigent Muslim woman divorcee had polarised the country along communal lines resulting in the Congress Party passing the Muslim Women's Bill that negated the rights Muslim women had under the civil law.
Moving beyond the Koran
They hold that the Board would have relieved the burden of millions of Muslim women if it had negated a man's right to unilateral divorce in the model nikahnama. But women's groups working on issues of law and violence against women in general have seen the Board's document as a positive step because they feel that it suggests that even bodies like the AIMPLB are responding to demands for reform.
The divergent positions taken by women's groups apart, what is most significant is that today there are many more groups representing Muslim women around the country than in 1985. In Mumbai, for instance, the Muslim Women's Rights Network has prepared its own model nikahnama and has already used it in several marriages. Some older women have persuaded their husbands to take the marriage vows again using this nikahnama. These women are clear that they do not want to wait for a Board made up almost exclusively of men to decide how their rights in marriage will be determined. Twenty years ago such a situation would have been unimaginable.
We also have to note that Muslim women have formed their own Muslim Women's Law Board. They too have rejected the AIMPLB draft and plan to bring out their own. They are speaking out in the media without any fear. And most unusual of all developments is the determination of Sharifa Khanam of Puddukottai, Tamilnadu to build a separate mosque for women. She argues that when women go to the police, they are referred to the Jamat, which holds its meetings in the mosque. Here women cannot enter and the Jamat is exclusively male. So, she says, women's problems should be settled in a place where women can meet. Why not a mosque for women?
These developments reveal the growing desire for a change amongst Muslim women, one that they are now making public and for which they are mobilising. Shameem may not know her rights. But she knows now to whom she can turn for help.