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An overwhelming majority of Muslim women want oral and unilateral divorce banned and qazis (clerics) who send such notices punished, says the first-ever national survey on attitudes of Muslim women to reforms in personal law.

The study also found comprehensive rejection of polygamy, with 91.7% of the 4,710 women interviewed in 10 states across India saying their husbands should not take a second wife under any circumstance during the life of an existing marriage.

The survey was conducted by Noorjehan Safia Niaz and Zakia Soman, founding members of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a self-help group for women.

“Every dialogue on Muslim women’s rights is conducted by the government and the clergy, with women themselves never getting a seat at the table," said Soman, a former lecturer at Gujarat university.

“For the first time, we asked Muslim women for their views on a range of laws, from polygamy to divorce and custody to maintenance," added Safia, a sociologist. “This study gives a voice to Muslim women and their aspirations."

Conducted between July and December 2013 in states including Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, the survey interviewed a mix of urban and rural women and found a high level of awareness of the rights available under Muslim personal law.

Interestingly, 95.5% of these surveyed had not even heard of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Muslims in India are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariah) Application Act, 1937. In the absence of codification, Shariah law is open to interpretation by members of the local clergy. While 83.3% women surveyed said they believed that codification of Muslim family law will help them get justice, 87.9% wanted the activities of darul qazas (Islamic courts) to be monitored by the state.

The BMMA has evolved a model nikahnama (marriage contract) that, said Safia, is based on the principles of gender justice and the Shariah. The study, titled Seeking Justice Within Family, will be released in Mumbai on 11 August.

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