Mumbai: Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), with a membership of 70,000-plus Muslim women, has been advocating codification of the Sharia. In an interview, Niaz asserts that it is not the imposition of a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) that would assure gender justice and equality to Muslim women. For that to happen, Muslim personal law needs to be codified, she insists. Edited excerpts:
The debate in the country is focused on the UCC and the triple talaq (oral divorce) issue. Is there any link?
UCC and triple talaq are two very different issues. The BMMA is not in favour of UCC because that is not the answer to the Muslim woman’s grievances. What Muslim women need is codification of the Sharia on the basis of Qur’anic texts and the Constitutional values of equality and justice. This has been done in the case of Hindus, Christians, and Parsis, even when we did not have UCC. Also, the demand for implementation of UCC always situates the debate in political terms as it has now. Both the state and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) are exploiting the UCC issue for their own constituencies. Muslim women are the losers because the predictable narrative on UCC always puts the larger and independent issue of Muslim women’s gender rights on the back-burner.
How serious is the triple talaq issue?
It is a very serious problem for a large number of Muslim women and it has needed a careful legal, political, and constitutional intervention for decades. I keep getting cases that convey the intensity of this problem.
Till recently, the issue was confined to triple talaq given orally. Now, talaq is being given via WhatsApp and text messages. Yesterday I got phone calls from two women from Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal who had been given talaq over the phone. Even the Qazi approved it. The rampant manner in which triple talaq is being handed down has made the practice of polygamy very easy. There is an utter disregard for the Muslim woman’s gender rights.
What is the way to fix it?
As the BMMA and several other civic society members have been saying for years, the Sharia needs to be codified. The Quran does not sanction triple talaq. Prophet Muhammad condemned it. The Quran actually talks of arbitration. Why shouldn’t the arbitration as sanctioned by the Quran be part of the codified Muslim personal law? The government needs to bring in a legislation that seeks to codify the Sharia, like it has been done for women of other faiths in India and the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986 brought in after the Shah Bano case. This is the most practical way of ensuring that Muslim women get their gender rights. We have sent a draft of the codified Sharia to the Prime Minister’s office, to the Law Commission, and also to the National Commission for Women with 50,000 signatures.
Why is the government not doing it then?
I would not know. The government needs to focus on the codification aspect only. But the government and AIMPLB are addressing their own constituencies by sticking to the UCC narrative. For AIMPLB, any insistence on imposition of UCC is welcome because it allows them to create a scare among Muslims about the government’s intention. It also gives them the license to accuse people like us of furthering the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) agenda of implementing UCC when what we have actually been demanding is codification. The AIMPLB is against codification and so it frames the debate in the UCC terms to scare the Muslims. To be fair to the government, the questionnaire drafted by the Law Commission is carefully worded and is absolutely a non-threatening way to gauge public sentiment on UCC and triple talaq. We are in the process of drafting our responses to the questionnaire.
Do you see a realistic chance of the Sharia being codified during this government’s tenure?
I am hopeful because some government has to do it and this government has the majority to do it. It has the full support of Muslim women to do it. But the way the terms of the debate are being set and in view of the Uttar Pradesh elections, I see very little realistic chance of the codification happening anytime sooner.