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October 1, 2014
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November 4, 2014

Talaq by WhatsApp: why Muslim divorce laws in India need an overhaul

Rizwana Farween (name changed), 32, was hurriedly completing household chores one sultry June evening at her home in New Delhi, so she could rush to the nearby cyber café to check if she had email from her husband, who was currently employed in Middle East. She also wanted to make up with him about a small argument they had on phone three days earlier.

She was happy to see her husband’s email in her mail box, thinking that the argument with him was resolved. The email contained just three words: talaqtalaqtalaq. Her shock was beyond words and she tried calling him, thinking of it as some kind of sick joke but he didn’t even take her call.

As Farween discovered over the next few days, she was not the only one to have been divorced over the internet. The mawlawi who had conducted the Farweens’ wedding , who is also her cousin, told her that the divorce was very much valid as the husband proved that he had two witnesses at the time of sending the email.

“I still find it unbelievable that a small argument led to an end of our marriage. It still shocks me that he didn’t even have the decency to tell me to my face that he didn’t want me in his life. So in a sense there is no closure for me. Even after four years, I still think about it every day… every single day…” says anguished Farween.

Farween is possibly better off than many others of her community who have been divorced in similar fashion. She is educated and although she had left her job after the wedding, she was easily able to find a job as a teacher soon after the divorce.

“I was very lucky that my parents had educated us, which means that I am not a burden on them today, but there is nothing to look forward to in my life. Something died in me after the divorce and I go through the motions of life without actually living. I need to know why it happened”, says Farween as she stares at the white wall behind me.

Farween will probably never know why she was divorced, whether it was just a momentary decision or whether her husband had decided a long time back the he would get rid of her and argument was just an excuse he was waiting for. However, she never had an opportunity to save her marriage because she never saw the divorce coming and, secondly, it was just way too easy for her husband to get rid of his legally wedded wife.

Triple talaq

India is one of the few countries that recognises oral and triple talaq. Muslims in India are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act 1937. According to oral or triple talaq (divorce), Muslim men can divorce their wife by simply uttering talaq thrice. In the last couple of years, Muslim men have increasingly been using digital media to divorce.

What makes the situation very difficult is that the Muslim Personal Law is not codified, which means it is open to interpretation by local clergy.

Many Muslim women believe this is the main reason that one can always find a cleric to do something in your favour.

“Muslim law is not fortified in India, which means that actually there is no law. It is open to interpretation by anyone. This is the main reason why Muslim men are able to get away with almost anything. It has become easier for them to divorce their wives in the digital era. We are encountering a number of cases now where the men are using digital media to divorce their wives”, says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founding member of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). The organisation works in 11 states for the upliftment of Muslim women in India. BMMA boasts of having around 50,000 members across 11 states.

BMMA came up with a draft Muslim Law earlier this year, which it claims accords with the intent in the Qur’an. According to this draft, oral divorce is not in keeping with the spirit of Islam.

“Over the last year we have had inputs from the community in seven states and the draft does away with the discriminatory practices [against Muslim women] currently prevalent in India”, says Niaz.

According to Islam, oral divorce takes place over a period of three months, giving both parties enough time to think through the consequences of divorce and change their decision. Niaz says there is also a provision for counselling to resolve differences.

Today, Muslim women are divorced for the flimsiest of reasons, ranging from not being a good cook to wearing spectacles. Divorce over digital media has only added to their suffering. While it has always been easy to divorce in Muslim community, the process is much easier in the digital era.

It has greatly increased the anxiety of Muslim women, who have always lived under the threat of being divorced for smallest of reasons.

Now it is possible simply to write talaq three times in an email, WhatsApp or even on a Facebook wall to divorce. It just might be the easiest way to end your marriage. Once divorced, Muslim women don’t have too many options. In most cases they are forced to accept their lot.

Interestingly, the Muslim Personal Law Board states clearly that it does not recognise the validity of divorce through digital media, which has no standing in the courts.

“We strongly and very clearly assert that divorce through digital media such as email, Facebook or WhatsApp is not enforceable in the court of law. Islam and the Muslim Personal Law does not recognise this kind of practice”, says Aavocate Abdul Rahim Querishi, the assistant general secretary at the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Affected women claim that this is not true in practice. Mumbai-based Zeenat Praveen Ansari, 38, claims she has been fighting a legal battle with her second husband for the last two years.

“It was a second marriage for my husband as well, who already has a wife and two kids. His first wife threatened him that she will leave him along with her kids until and unless he divorces me. So he just sent me a message on Whats App with talaq written three times”, says Ansari.

Unknown validity

Ansari owns the Sai Baba Bakery in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar neighbourhood. “I come from a reasonably well-to-do family and after my first divorce my parents opened this bakery for me. I have two sons from the first marriage. In our culture it is important to be married and this was the main reason why I decided to marry him despite knowing he was already married”, she says.

Today, she has a legal battle to establish the validity of her WhatApp divorce. She is fighting her case in the Indian courts as she had a court marriage with two witnesses from both sides.

“The problem is that nobody knows the status of this divorce. Neither the lawyers nor the clergy are sure about its validity. I feel unless and until lawyers or religious leaders are involved there is no divorce. We got married in court as well as in a religious ceremony, so how can we get divorced like this? I believe it is not valid so I am legally still his wife, which I why I am fighting the case. However, I am not sure for how long I can fight this because the process is very slow”, says Ansari.

“Islam doesn’t believe in divorce at all and there are various safeguards to prevent a divorce. It is only when there is no option that divorce is allowed. There are a number of divorces happening in the community for petty reasons. We strongly discourage this and feel that small fights keep on happening in every household”, says Querishi .

There is clearly a compelling need to reinterpret the sharia to deal with such digital challenges. With some religious leaders accepting the validity of digital divorce, there is a strong need for all Muslim leaders to clear the air about it. Until they do, hapless Muslim women will continue to suffer or be divorced for the silliest of reasons.

1 Comment

  1. RAMAN says:

    In your last few posts, I have noticed a grave concern for Muslims. This topic is very relevant in today’s world as a Uniform Civil code is very necessary now.
    We cant just let any citizen of India Do anything. Even if the matter is personal to them, Human is a social animal and everyone is afffected by bad doings of a single person. Also, increasingly more Hindus are converting themselves to Islam to enjoy multiple marriages as well as easier divorces..

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