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Three words still mean divorce

Yet again, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has failed to muster the courage to call for the abolition of triple talaq — the reactionary custom that gives Muslim men the licence to divorce their wives instantaneously and without their consent, by uttering the word `talaq' three times. Those who wanted the AIMPLB, a body that has no legal status but wields considerable influence on questions of Muslim personal law, to come out unequivocally against the practice have reasons to be thoroughly disappointed by the model nikahnama (marriage contract) the Board unveiled last Sunday. The document is a set of voluntary guidelines for Muslim couples wishing to enter into a marriage contract; the `reform' element in it is the suggestion that men must not resort to triple talaq (talaq-e-bidah) in one sitting unless it became inevitable. In other words, the AIMPLB is not willing to resile from the appallingly unjust position that triple talaq is a male entitlement. Over the last few years, reform-minded members of the AIMPLB and progressive women's organisations (Muslim and non-Muslim) have lobbied for the modernisation of some aspects of Muslim personal law. On the face of it, triple talaq is an easy candidate for such reform. It is not recognised by the Koran, is not practised by Shias, and is banned either expressly or by implication in a large number of Islamic countries, notably Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, and Tunisia. It is deplorable that the AIMPLB, which has declared itself in favour of less discriminatory forms of divorce prescribed under Muslim personal law, will not recommend the rooting out of triple talaq.

The model nikahnama, a kind of uniform marriage code prescribed for the Muslim community, is deafeningly silent on issues such as polygamy and the minimum marriage age for Muslim women. It does have some progressive features. It calls for the preparation of written records of all marriages and for copies of the contract to be handed over to both bride and groom (a measure that will inhibit disputes over matters of fact). It makes it mandatory for parents or guardians of couples to be present during the marriage (a check on the phenomenon of forced marriages). It gives Muslim couples the option of signing a document that agrees to submit divorce proceedings to arbitration in the event of a decision to separate (although arbitration by a cleric tends to put women at a built-in disadvantage). In the overall context, the changes recommended are distressingly inadequate. Discriminatory and backward-looking marriage laws adversely affect the socio-economic well being of the women concerned but the harmful effects are not confined to women. Forward-looking organisations of Muslim women such as Awaz-e-Niswan are absolutely right in denouncing the AIMPLB document as "ridiculous... [as well as] dangerous" and as pushing "our personal issues into the ghetto." The Board, a self-appointed authority, stands irretrievably discredited.

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