Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based journalist.
In a landmark ruling, the Indian Supreme Court has freed India's 90-million Muslim women from the fear of instant divorce, a controversial custom which allowed a man to divorce his wife by saying "talaq" three times. Earlier this week, the court banned it as unconstitutional.
The victory was as sweet as the practice was cruel. Some Muslim women lived fettered and muzzled by the fear that, one wrong step or one wrong word and their marriage could be dissolved, there and then, in person or by e-mail, WhatsApp, Facebook or SMS. While there are no official figures to show how many women have been divorced in this fashion, a 2015 survey by a women's group, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), showed that one in 11 Muslim women had been victims of triple talaq.
Even if the figure had been only one in 10,000, it is the principle that counts – the principle that women must be treated with respect and due process instead of being discarded like an unwanted T-shirt.
The verdict marked the culmination of a long legal battle by a few individual women and the BMMA.
It also marked a sea change in how the country perceives such issues. Even a decade ago, conservative Muslim clerics would have been up in arms, denouncing any attempt by the courts to interfere with the Sharia. But in the two years that it has taken for the verdict to come, an intense debate ensued. It moved public opinion so firmly in favour of placing gender justice before this dubious religious practice that supporters of triple talaq were effectively cornered.
In fact, what is shocking is that it took India so long to ban triple talaq for its Muslim minority when it has been illegal in many Muslim countries for years. The reason is that India allows all its religious communities to follow their own personal laws in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance, etc. For example, polygamy is banned in India but permitted to Muslim men on the grounds that Islam allows it and they are entitled to follow their faith.
Hindu religious practices were codified decades ago. The more undesirable customs were removed. Women were given, for example, equal inheritance rights as men. But when it came to the Muslim minority, successive governments proved reluctant to step in. Nor did the Muslim community itself show any inclination to remove retrograde practices that degrade women. It took the courage of a few Muslim women who had been divorced in this way to take their petitions on triple talaq to the Supreme Court for change to happen.
The crux of the matter is whether Indian Muslims can follow aspects of their religion which they regard as integral to their faith even if these aspects conflict with ideas of modernity and gender justice. How do you balance a Muslim's right to freedom of religion (which is guaranteed under the constitution) with the fact that some of his practices infringe the principle of gender equality (also enshrined in the constitution)? When they conflict, which of these two fundamental rights is paramount?
The answer to this question is probably going to emerge from a debate that will rumble on for years as, incrementally, the courts and the government try to find the right balance. The best solution is one civil code that applies to every Indian. The only problem is that in a country as prodigiously complex and diverse as India where minorities cling to their religious identities, outrage will erupt at interference in religious beliefs.
In the case of instant divorce, the Supreme Court's ruling has been accepted, by and large. But triple talaq in any case had no sanction in the Koran, say activists, and it was highly repulsive to any decent-thinking person. In short, it was a low hanging fruit. But when it comes to other aspects of Islam, or for that matter Christianity or Sikhism, interference is less likely to be brooked.
It will be interesting to see what follows: Will Muslim women now take up polygamy? Will Muslim women continue to inherit less than men? Will a Muslim woman be allowed to be the guardian of her child, even if her husband has passed away?
Finally, what about implementation? India is good at banning but hopeless at enforcing bans. The demanding of dowry has been outlawed since 1961 but every day, 21 women are killed over dowry-related incidents. Just this week, a bright young woman in New Delhi who dreamed of teaching at university hanged herself because of her in-laws' incessant beatings for more dowry.
Triple talaq is merely one part of the mountainous weight of patriarchy which casts a shadow over every Indian woman's life, of every faith. The Supreme Court ruling is an important victory, but there are many more battles to be fought yet.