By Michael Safi in Delhi An Islamic practice permitting men to instantly divorce their wives has been declared unconstitutional by India’s supreme court after decades of campaigning by women’s groups and victims.
The “triple talaq” has allowed Muslim men to dissolve marriages by pronouncing the word “divorce” three times.
The supreme court in Delhi took up the issue last year in response to a petition from seven victims and women’s groups. A majority of the bench declared on Wednesday that triple talaq was “not integral to religious practice and violates constitutional morality”.
Campaigners hailed the supreme court’s 3-2 decision as a huge victory for India’s 90 million Muslim women.
“It’s a very happy day for us. It’s a historic day,” said Zakia Soman, the co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), an activist group that was party to the legal battle.
“We, the Muslim women, are entitled to justice from the courts as well as the legislature.”
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, also welcomed the verdict.
A national survey conducted in 2015 by the BMMA found roughly 1 in 11 Muslim women were survivors of triple talaq, the vast majority receiving no alimony or compensation.
Clerics had also started recognising instant divorces where the word “talaq” had been texted or emailed.
Arshiya Ismail did not even hear her husband utter the words. She told the Guardian last year: “One day, suddenly, he told me he had given me talaq. He said: ‘I gave it to you four days earlier.’”
She has spent the past six years trying to have the Islamic divorce overturned so that she can leave her husband under India’s more progressive secular laws, which entitle her to one-third of his salary to support herself and their child. “It’s wonderful news, I’m so emotional about it,” Ismail said on Tuesday. “Basically my marriage still stands as per the supreme court. I was hoping for it but I still had my doubts.”
Triple talaq has been criticised even among hardline Muslim schools and was already banned in Pakistan, Bangladesh and across much of the Islamic world.
It persisted in India because the country’s Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities are permitted to follow religious law in personal matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption.
Progressive Muslim women’s groups say Islamic religious authorities – uniformly male – have been resistant to give up men’s power to instantly leave their wives.
India’s Muslim community is also generally poorer and less educated than others, which activists say has made it harder for women to mount legal and social campaigns against the practice.
Islamic leaders have also warned that meddling with Muslim personal laws may see them one day dismantled altogether, in favour of a uniform civil code they fear would be Hindu-inflected and ride roughshod over their beliefs.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, whose party has long pushed for a uniform civil code, had backed the petitioners in the case. Each of the five supreme court judges belonged to one of India’s main faiths – Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism. The majority opinion said it was “manifestly arbitrary” to allow a husband to “break down [a] marriage whimsically and capriciously”.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a peak body of Islamic organisations, had said it considered triple talaq but argued against the supreme court interfering in religious law. Nonetheless, Kamal Faruqui, a member of the board, said he regarded the decision as a victory.
“It upholds the rights of Muslims and other minorities to follow their own personal laws,” he said.
“There were some voices in the country that wanted to bring in a uniform civil code for all religious faiths, but the supreme court judges said a few weeks ago that they would look only at triple talaq, not at other customs. So Muslim personal law has been protected by the ruling.”
Noor Jehan, another member of the BMMA, said she had celebrated the verdict in her office with sweets and soft drinks, but would begin lobbying for a more progressive Islamic divorce law. “It is a historic victory for Muslim women, something we have been working for for 10 years,” she said. “It is going to give immense relief to women but we need to pass a law soon. Our organisation has already prepared a draft law which we will send to the government.”