In August of last year, the Supreme Court of India banned a Muslim divorce procedure (called “triple talaq”) after a sustained, grassroots campaign by Muslim women. Until then, a husband could instantly divorce his wife by stating three times “I divorce you,” by way of an oral, written or electronic communication. He did not have to provide a reason for the unilateral action. Once divorced, the wife had to leave the marital home immediately, without any alimony. It was a practice peculiar to Indian Muslims since every Muslim country has banned it.
The long road to victory began with a few courageous women who took on entrenched tradition and religious authority to demand basic human dignity. Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a Muslim women’s grassroots organization based in Mumbai, lent its support to their efforts by shining a light on the human misery caused by triple talaq. The group conducted research into the prevalence of the custom, its history within India and its lack of legitimacy within Islamic law. This principled activism was instrumental in convincing many Muslims to demand abolishment of the practice. With a view to the future, BMMA has been training women as qazis (female judges) to adjudicate Muslim family disputes through a lens of gender justice.
Last year, I had a chance to speak with Zakia Soman and Noorjehan Safia Niaz, the visionary co-founders of BMMA, about the wider ramifications of the Supreme Court ruling.
"Gender equality is overdue globally,” Ms. Soman said. “Indian Muslim women showed the world that gender justice is a fundamental principle of Islam. That equality for Muslim women is not a mirage, but a distinct possibility.”
For Ms. Niaz, the triple talaq battle was revolutionary, because “Muslim women reclaimed religion from patriarchal forces who for decades misrepresented the message of Islam and projected a misogynist viewpoint which not only destroyed the lives of women, but has also maligned the name of Islam.” Reforms are being led directly by women, based on their reading of holy texts that emphasize spiritual equality and accountability of men and women. The next step is codification of Muslim family law, so that spurious practices are eliminated.
Such progressive efforts are reminiscent of a formidable woman in early Islamic history, Khawla bint Tha’labah. Given the title of al-Mujadilah (“the one who disputes”) in the Koran, bint Tha’labah fought against instant divorce in seventh-century Arabia. At the time, a husband could end a marriage by simply telling his wife: “Your back is as the back of my mother.” This practice of “dhihar” (literally “back”) was widespread, ingrained and unchallenged.
Until bint Tha’labah, a devout Muslim woman, came along.
During a heated argument, her husband, Aws, pronounced dhihar. Rather than crumble, bint Tha’labah vented outrage – first at Aws, and then to Prophet Mohammed. “I gave him the best years of my life, bore his children and raised them. And now he throws me away. This is wrong!” she pleaded. The Prophet counselled patience. But bint Tha’labah refused to budge. She stood her ground and argued respectfully with the Prophet of Islam to ban the practice. She then prayed directly to God for relief.
And relief came swiftly, decisively, unequivocally in bint Tha’labah’s favour. According to historical records, four remarkable Koranic verses were revealed in response to bint Tha’labah’s pleading. There was absolutely no rebuke against her for arguing with the Prophet. On the contrary, her principled stand was affirmed. “Dhihar” was designated as a vile practice and henceforth banned. Harsh measures were prescribed for husbands who continued. Those who changed their mind after pronouncing “dhihar” were required to pay a steep penalty for the harm they had caused. Husbands were held accountable for their abuse.
Bint Tha’labah’s example has stood for 14 centuries. Unfortunately, she has remained largely ignored by Muslims in contemporary discourse. Here is an example of a devout Muslim woman who challenged the Prophet, no less, and whose effort was unequivocally affirmed in the Koran. She reminds us abuse must be confronted – even when that abuse is sanitized by prevailing cultural norms or sanctioned by religious authority.
Contemporary female Muslim scholars – such as Ayesha Chaudhry, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Asma Lamrabet – are challenging patriarchal interpretations of the Koran, thereby providing women with exegetical tools to confront male privilege rooted in theology.
Muslim women are realizing that piety does not mean submissiveness. They are finding moral clarity within their spiritual tradition to address contemporary challenges.