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Divorce and Remarriage among Muslims in India
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand

Editor: Imtiaz Ahmad

Publisher: Manohar, New Delhi

Year: 2003

Pages: 436

ISBN: 81-7304-493-7

Price: Rs. 850


The debate on the Muslim Personal Law has occasioned a flurry of writings by both its critics as well as its supporters. For both, the Muslim Personal Law is seen as intimately related to notions of Muslim community identity. Right-wing Hindutva groups see separate personal laws for Muslims as a legal stumbling block to their own agenda of imposing a monolithic Hindu identity on all the citizens of India. Conversely, many Muslims see Muslim Personal Law as a legal guarantee of their separate community status. Despite the large number of books as well as media space devoted to the issue, the debate continues to rage, with rival groups seeming no closer to mutual comprehension and dialogue.

One of the central issues in discussions of Muslim Personal Law is the status of women. Typically, Muslim writers argue that Islam has provided women with a fair deal, granting them rights, such as inheritance or the freedom of martial choice, that no other religion had ever accorded them. On the other hand, critics argue to the contrary, claiming that the Muslim Personal Law grossly violates the principle of gender equality. In particular, it is argued that the considerable freedom that the Muslim Personal Law, as it exists in India today, grants to husbands to divorce their wives is an affront to modern sensibilities and hence must be changed. This professed concern for the rights of Muslim women is often used by fiercely anti-Muslim Hindutva ideologues in order to justify their opposition to Muslim Personal Law.

This book makes a significant advance on current discussions related to Muslim Personal Law. It brings together a series of seventeen case studies from different parts of India, based on empirical research, focusing on issues related to divorce and remarriage. As Imtiaz Ahmad argues in his introductory chapter, discussions related to Muslim Personal Law have, so far, remained largely confined to arguments over the law. By shifting the debate to concrete social reality the book challenges several received notions about Muslim law and the actual status of Muslim women, in particular on the issue of divorce.

In discussing the legal versus social status of Muslim women, in particular on matters related to divorce, Ahmad argues for a reconsideration of precisely what constitutes Muslim law. Here he pleads against the sort of essentialism common to both detractors and supporters of Muslim Personal Law as it exists in India today. Instead, he stresses the need to explore the possibilities within the Islamic tradition to generate new insights on women’s rights, including on divorce. This entails a new ijtihād that, while guaranteeing women’s rights, would remain true to the values of equality and justice so central to the Qur’ān.

The remainder of the book consists of a series of empirical studies of divorce among Muslim communities in various parts of India, including Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Kashmir. They point to the immense diversities that exist among Muslims across India, warning against the tendency to essentialize Muslims in terms of stereotypes. Contrary to received understandings, the contributors point out that arbitrary divorce is not rampant among Muslims, and is certainly not more common than among other communities. In fact, divorce is often frowned upon as contrary to respectable behaviour. Further, divorce does not always or even most often take the form of t*alāq al-bid‘ah or triple divorce in one sitting initiated by the husband, as is often assumed.

This does not, however, mean that divorce is not often used by husbands in an arbitrary way or to deny the often serious implications it has for women. Several contributors point out that the threat of divorce is often used to tyrannize women; that more often than not marriages are conducted without the signing of a marriage contract that could guarantee the wife’s marital rights; that the mehr or dower that the wife is meant to receive is rarely paid; that although in theory divorced Muslim women are allowed to remarry local Muslim communities often look upon with this with considerable distaste; that often divorced women do not receive any financial support from their husbands, relatives or the wider community although Islam does insist on this, and so on.

In grounding the debate on divorce in actual empirical reality, this book helps to shift the focus of discussion on the subject, underlining the fact that whatever the theoretical position of women’s status in Muslim Personal Law might be, their actual conditions are markedly different. Some of the papers make important comparative analyses, showing that although Hindu and Muslim women are subjected to different personal law regimes, their actual status is remarkably the same in large parts of India. This suggests that what is more important for Muslim women’s status is not simply a legal change but, rather, efforts to improve their social, educational and economic conditions. In the absence of this, the continuing debate on Muslim Personal Law versus a Uniform Civil Code would have little bearing on the actual position of Muslim women.


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