Nishat Fatima (name changed), 30, was still dwelling on a minor tiff with her husband about moving to a different part of the city when she received a call from him. Smiling, she assumed that the argument had been resolved. However, all her husband said on the phone was talaq, talaq, talaq before disconnecting the call and ending their marriage of five years.
Much to her shock, Fatima discovered over the next few months that the short and cryptic divorce delivered over the phone was actually valid. She is yet to come to terms with her divorce and finds it hard to believe that her husband could walk away from their marriage without any explanation whatsoever.
“It is not fair. Now I have to single-handedly bring up our three-year-old daughter while he can easily get married again,” says a crestfallen Fatima.
She is not alone. Though there are no statistics, experts believe that there has been a significant increase in the number of digital divorces in the Muslim community of late. Instantaneous and extremely impersonal, these divorces can happen for any insignificant reason, from wearing spectacles to not adding enough salt in food. The validity of these divorces implies that the Muslim women have to forever live under a cloud of anxiety and apprehension.
“The number of such cases has significantly increased in the last few years and most of them are without any valid reason,” says Noorjehan Safia Niaz, founding member of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). With nearly 50,000 members in 11 states in India, BMMA is working on many fronts, such as education and personal law, for the upliftment of Muslim women.
Experts believe that Muslim laws not being codified or fortified in India makes it possible for Muslim men to get away with divorcing their wives at the drop of a hat.
“What this means is that in all practical terms there is no law. Any maulana can interpret it to the convenience of anyone. This is the main reason that Muslim men can get away with almost anything because they can always find a maulana to give a verdict in their favour,” says Niaz.
BMMA came up with a draft Muslim Law last year, which it claims accords with the intent of the Quran. According to this draft, verbal divorce is not in keeping with the spirit of Islam.
“The draft does away with the practice of verbal divorce since it is not in keeping with the spirit of Islam. According to Islam, verbal divorce is [delivered] over a period of three months during which both parties get time to think of its consequences and they have time to change their decision. Other salient features of the draft include the minimum age of girls at the time of marriage should be 18 years and for boys, 21 years. ‘Meher’ at the time of wedding should be the annual income of the groom,” says Niaz.
The draft laws were prepared after collating inputs from all the stakeholders of the Muslim community, particularly women from seven states, which highlights the strong demand from the community to change the oppressive laws.
According to Sharia or the Muslim Personal Law, verbal divorce takes place over a period of three months, thus giving both parties enough time to reconsider their decision and to understand the consequences of divorce. Further, according to the Muslim law, there is a provision to counsel both parties in order to resolve their differences.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board corroborates this. “We strongly and very clearly assert that divorce through digital media such as e-mail, Facebook or WhatsApp is not enforceable in the court of law. Islam and the Muslim Personal Law do not recognise this kind of practice,” says advocate Abdul Rahim Quraishi, assistant general secretary at the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
“There are various safeguards to prevent a divorce in Islam. It is only when there’s no option that divorce is allowed. A number of divorces in the community are happening for petty reasons. We strongly discourage this and feel that minor fights do happen in every household and they should not lead to divorce,” says Quraishi.
While it has always been somewhat easy for Muslim men to divorce their wives, the use of digital medium makes it almost instantaneous. In both forms of divorce there is a period, iddat, during which the woman can claim nafaqah or maintenance. However, women do not have a chance to contest the validity of the divorce. They just have to accept their fate.
It is not just Indian Muslim women who are suffering. In some countries in the Middle East and Malaysia, mobile devices have been used to end marriages by simply texting talaq, talaq, talaq. And before the advent of mobile devices, there were instances when telephone calls, snail mail and even telegrams were used to communicate divorce.
The other point of view is that technology is just a means of communication so it doesn’t matter whether a divorce is expressed personally or through Facebook, e-mail or Skype. However, the ease of such methods has increased the instances of divorce. Moreover, with no means to question divorce, Muslim women are at the receiving end.
Mumbai-based Zeenat Parveen Ansari, 39, is one of the few women in the country who was divorced through WhatsApp.
“It was a second marriage for my husband as well, who already has a wife and two children. His first wife threatened that unless he divorced me, she would leave him along with her children. So he just sent me a message on WhatsApp with talaq written three times,” says Ansari.
Ansari, who has two sons from a previous marriage, runs a bakery in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar area. However, it was not second time lucky for her. Today, she is fighting a legal battle disputing the validity of the WhatsApp divorce. She is fighting her case in the courts as she had a registered marriage in a court with two witnesses from both sides.
What complicates the situation for her is that nobody is sure about the status of the divorce. Ansari believes that since she got married in court as well as in a religious ceremony, the flimsy manner in which she was divorced cannot be valid. Clearly, there is a strong need to reinterpret Muslim Personal Law to deal with the digital imbroglio.
India needs to take the brave step of discontinuing with this practice as most of the Muslim countries have done away with the practice of triple talaq.
“Muslim women’s voice is loud and clear. The state and the clergy have to listen to them. At least they should come forward and debate. The fortified law should be based on Islam and not otherwise,” says Niaz.
Their fight got a major boost with a committee under Ministry of Women and Child Development recommending that the government should ban triple talaq. The report says the practice “makes wives extremely vulnerable and insecure regarding their marital status”. The ministry will now need to hold consultations with various religious groups before taking the final decision.
Muslim leaders should clear the ambiguity surrounding digital divorce so that the women of the community do not have suffer any longer or endure the consequences of a divorce for unjustifiable reasons.
Gagandeep Kaur is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. You can follow her on Twitter @Gagandeepjourno