A proposed bill criminalizing "triple talaq" among Indian Muslims has spawned an acrimonious debate. Critics complain if it becomes law, it could be used as a tool against Muslim men and wouldn't help Muslim women.
The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been pulling out all the stops to ram through parliament a bill that seeks to make "triple talaq" or instant divorce among Muslims illegal with a sentence of up to three years imprisonment.
The Muslim Women Protection of Rights in Marriage Bill 2017 was easily passed by the parliament's lower house last week, as Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a clear majority in the chamber. But in the upper house, the BJP is in a minority and hasn't been able to secure enough support from other political parties to push the bill through. Opposition parties, led by the Indian National Congress, and even some allies of the BJP have demanded the draft regulation to be referred to a select committee for further deliberation.
Instant divorce or "triple talaq" happens when a Muslim man ends his marriage by simply saying "talaq" (which means "you are divorced" in Arabic) three times in succession.
In August, India's Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and ordered the government to come up with new legislation within six months to regulate marriage and divorce among the minority Muslim community, which numbers around 180 million out of the nation's 1.25 billion people.
Triple talaq has been denounced as a violation of human rights by civil society groups and Muslim and non-Muslim feminists alike. There have been complaints about Muslim men divorcing their wives over text messages, Skype, emails and phone calls. Many Muslim-majority countries, including India's neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh, have already banned the practice.
Civil or criminal
The BJP has criticized the Congress and other opposition parties for stalling a bill that it deems "a matter of women's dignity."
"It is unfortunate that the Congress party is not ready for a discussion. It wants to keep the bill pending and that is a matter of regret," said Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. The bill makes an instant divorce null and void and proposes that men financially support their divorced wives, who will get custody of any children.
But critics say the main issue is the government's attempt to turn triple talaq into a criminal offense, which would lead to a Muslim man facing three years in prison for uttering the word "talaq" three times, even though this act has no legal power anymore.
Opponents of the proposed measure argue that this move would render a Muslim woman more vulnerable, as with her husband in jail, she would be deprived of both financial security and of her right to stay in her matrimonial home.
They contend that matrimonial issues must remain under civil laws. "This bill lacks coherence. Personal law is civil law, therefore, how can you criminalize civil law? It is self-defeating," Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen and a member of parliament, told DW.
The Congress party accuses the BJP of indulging in "politics" over the issue. "Here is a government which wants to force this bill through by virtue of its strength, but that is not happening. There is so much of dichotomy and contradiction that injustice with Muslim women will continue in the absence of any provision for their welfare," Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad told DW.
Lack of consensus
Civil society groups, including Muslim organizations and women's rights activists, say that the government had not consulted any stakeholders from the community before introducing the bill and failed to address Muslim women's issues on a broader scale.
Some even claim that the bill in its present form would result in mass surveillance of Muslim families, particularly those from poorer and undereducated backgrounds, and the demonizing of Muslim men.
"Once you criminalize a civil law, you are entering dangerous territory. If passed in the current form, it would create a culture of fear of the state being able to enter your home and be able to incarcerate Muslim men," Ayesha Kidwai, an activist, told DW.
"There are just too many contradictions. There has to be redressal within the confines of the marriage," says Faizur Rahman, secretary general of the Chennai-based Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought.
Even the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a network of Muslim women activists and organizations, which launched the nationwide campaign against instant divorce, is wary of the government's proposed bill. "There should be some form of punishment, either through compensation or maintenance. But since it is a personal law, it should be part of civil law, not criminal law," said Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of the BMMA.
The BJP, though, views the bill as an instrument that restores the dignity of Muslim women and is aimed at their betterment. One reason why it was keen on introducing criminal provisions was that there were several cases of instant divorce even after the Supreme Court judgment.
Citing data, law ministry officials told DW that even after the judgment there had been a number of instant talaq cases, with the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar recording the maximum number of cases. Last year, while there were 177 reported cases of triple talaq before the Supreme Court verdict, another 67 cases were reported even after the ruling.
"There has to be some deterrent to this disturbing trend. It cannot carry on like this," a senior law official told DW on condition of anonymity.
But not all are convinced by this argument. Many believe a parliamentary committee going through the finer nuances of the bill is the right way to go before it is turned into law.