One night in March 2015, Nadia's* husband came home a little drunk. They had been married for just over three months; their families had arranged it, and so far, everything had gone smoothly. He would take her out to visit a dargah (shrine), or sometimes they would go out for a meal. But that night when Nadia's husband came home, he started to hurl abuses at her. He told her that he'd never liked her, that she was too short, that he wanted a taller wife who would bring him a dowry—a motorbike and a washing machine. He began to beat her. Then, he uttered the three words that every Muslim woman in India dreads: Talaq, talaq, talaq.
Just like that, Nadia found herself divorced. The next morning, her family came to pick her up.
Triple talaq, or instantaneous talaq ("I divorce you" in Arabic) is a Sharia law from the 7th century that allows men to unilaterally end their marriages by simply saying talaq three times in succession. Men can announce divorce over the phone, email, text messages, and increasingly social media. Last year, in the southern state of Kerala, a 21-year-old was divorced over WhatsApp ten days after their wedding. In another instance, a woman in Bhopal (a city in central India) found a talaq message on her Facebook wall.
The divorce, once uttered, even if in jest, thoughtlessness, a slip of the tongue, or a fit of anger, is irrevocable, and the woman doesn't even need to be present, or aware, for it to be valid. If a husband decides he acted hastily, the only way for the marriage to be reinstated is through nikah halala, another Sharia law practice under which the woman has to marry another man, consummate the marriage with the second husband, get divorced, and then go back to her former husband. "I would never agree to go through halala. It is against the dignity of a woman," Nadia says. "I've told my family I won't go back to him under any circumstances. I'm prepared to live on my own."
Until it happened to her, Nadia, who is 23 years old, never thought much about the aunts and older cousins in her family and mohalla (neighborhood) whose stories of talaq she'd heard growing up. Now, she thinks of them often. According to government census figures from 2011, Muslim women have the highest rate of divorce—5.63 percent of marriages, compared to the national average of 3.10—among all religious communities in India. This is attributed to the prevalence of triple talaq.
As a Muslim woman from a conservative family, Nadia faces an uphill battle to become self-reliant. She has lived most of her life in isolation, spending her days cooking and cleaning at home, where she lives with her parents, brother, and two sisters. She is not allowed to go anywhere unescorted; she has never worked and dropped out of school after the eighth grade. Muslims are severely marginalized in India in general, and for Muslim women, disadvantages are particularly acute. In her 2010 article "Educating Muslim Women in India: Problems and Perspectives," the critic and historian Rakshanda Jalil writes, "When compared to women from other faiths in India, the majority of Muslim women are among the most disadvantaged, least literate, most economically impoverished and politically marginalized sections of Indian society."
Marriage is an incredibly important social institution in India, and it can grant some protection to marginalized women. But in addition to facing stigma, women who are arbitrarily divorced and abandoned by their husbands are likely to become destitute. Marriages ended under triple talaq, unlike those that end under India's secular laws, do not entitle the wife to alimony, which equals one-third of the husband's salary.
Despite being treated like that, I lived in constant fear of being divorced. And then one day it became reality.
I met Nadia at a makeshift office in Tigri Camp, a slum in the southern part of Delhi, just a stone's throw away from some of the poshest parts of the city. The office, part of a mass organization of Muslim women called the Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), is a bare room at the top of a house in a narrow, crisscrossing lane, and it serves as a place for women to meet and talk freely in the afternoons while men are away at work. In the last few months, the space has been humming with activity, as survivors of triple talaq from the area have gathered there to join thousands of other women in cities across India as part of the countrywide movement to abolish it.
Earlier this year, activists filed petitions in the Indian supreme court to declare both triple talaq and nikah halala unconstitutional. The validity of triple talaq has long been debated in Islam, and the practice has been banned in many Islamic countries, including like Pakistan, Morocco, Iran, and Bangladesh.
But in India, which is home to the third-largest Muslim population in the world, triple talaq has always been deeply divisive. Since British colonial rule, the state has allowed the country's religious groups to govern their own personal matters, such as marriage, divorce, and custody, but many argue that this policy, designed to promote religious freedom, leads to discrimination. For its part, the male-dominated All-India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), an influential non-governmental organization, has argued in favor of polygamy (it "is a social need") and stated that, in the absence of instant divorce, "legal compulsions of time-consuming separation proceedings and expenses may deter [a husband] from taking the legal course. In such instances, he may resort to illegal, criminal ways of murdering or burning [his wife] alive."
Current pushback against these ideas has come from the BMMA, which has a presence in more than 15 states in India and more 100,000 members. In a recent campaign, it collected 50,000 signatures from Muslim men and women to end triple talaq.
In a report released in October 2015 entitled "No More Talaq Talaq Talaq," the BMMA found that a majority of Muslim women in India want a total ban on the practice, noting that the "thousands of cases" of oral divorce the organization reviewed leave women "destitute with nowhere to go." In most cases, the report emphasizes, the husband's mindset and actions are dictated by the belief in his "right" to pronounce talaq and part permanently with his wife as "given by Islam."
The BMMA vehemently opposes this interpretation, and turns to Islam itself to do so. The organization has been striving to build awareness of the idea that triple talaq is actually a misrepresentation of the Quran and instead promote Quranic tenets on divorce that call for a 90-day period of discussion, dialogue, and arbitration.
I spoke with the co-founders of BMMA, Noorjehan Niaz and Zakia Soman, when the pair stopped in Delhi last month to consult with lawyers and supporters. For the last decade, they have put in painstaking work towards the equality of Muslim women in education, family, and society, but this year, they have been "in constant campaign mode." Earlier this year, the group scored a big win when the High Court in Mumbai gave a ruling allowing women to enter Haji Ali Dargah, a historic shrine in Mumbai, based on a petition they filed.
"There is a paradigm shift in the work we are doing," Soman, a former university professor, tells me. "That work [interpreting Islamic law] has forever been appropriated by religious men, and now we are saying that women will themselves do it. That's our biggest achievement and biggest challenge."
Soman and Niaz have been greatly influenced by the global movement for gender equality in Islam, and by the work of feminist Islamic scholars like the American scholar Amina Wadud and the Moroccan writer Fatema Mernissi. "We are ordinary women who believe in our religion," says Niaz. "We believe in equality and justice as Muslims, and that gives us the strength to challenge the patriarchal interpretations of Quran."
A few men have also defended the rights of Muslim women in the fight against triple talaq. Tahir Mahmood, an academic and critic of Muslim orthodoxy, has talked about the importance of raising awareness of khula, a process that allows Muslim women to initiate divorce and acts as a sort of counterpart to talaq. "While the law on divorce by men is in misuse, that on divorce by women is in disuse," Mahmood wrote in the report published by BMMA last year. "The very humanitarian concept of khula has been thrown into the dustbin, giving an absolutely wrong impression that putting an end to a marriage is an exclusive privilege of men."
In practice, khula is not a total antidote to talaq, but rather a resource for women fighting a patriarchal system. Unlike talaq, where a man can arbitrarily exercise his right and declare divorce, a woman needs the intervention of a qazi (a Sharia judge) to ask for a divorce and to give reasons for it. If the qazi is not convinced, he can reject her plea. The rare times that it is granted, she often has to give up many of her rights, including mehr (a sum granted to the wife at the time of the marriage for her financial security) and maintenance.
Thirty-five-year-old Shayara Bano has emerged as the face of the campaign against triple talaq as one of the two individual petitioners in a case—Shayara Bano vs. Union of India—being reviewed by the supreme court earlier this year. Her petition, which is supported by the BMMA, demands a ban on the practices of instant talaq, polygamy, and nikah halala. After 15 years of an abusive marriage, Bano, a mother of two, was sent a divorce letter by her husband while she was recuperating from an illness at her parents' home.
On the phone, Bano takes long pauses and speaks slowly. She talks about the years of beating she endured, the incessant demands for a dowry, and multiple abortions her husband forced her to undergo. "Despite being treated like that, I lived in constant fear of being divorced," she says. "And then one day it became reality."
That's when she found the strength to challenge him in court and take up the cause for all Muslim women in India. She didn't know she had the strength, but she says, "When I had no choice, I found I had a voice."