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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 06:25 GMT 07:25 UK
Muslim women fight instant divorce

By Geeta Pandey
BBC correspondent in Delhi

For more than a decade Muslim women activists in India have been demanding a ban on what is known as "triple talaq" or instant divorce.

My life's ruined. What can I do with myself now?
Jahanara
It is a system wherein a Muslim man can divorce his wife in a matter of minutes.

The issue has been highlighted recently after several Indian Muslims have taken to divorcing their wives by mail, over the phone and even through mobile phone text messages.

The practice of instant divorce is banned in several Islamic countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

But it continues in India.

'Life ruined'

Jahanara's house lies off a narrow lane in Old Delhi.

Narrow steps, barely a foot wide, take you up to the first floor where she sits huddled in a corner of her tiny two-room home, mourning.

Jahanara's parents got her married when she was 15.

Now, two years later, she is back with them because her husband has divorced her.

Saying that he was setting her free he repeated the words "Talaq" (divorce) three times and left.

Rehana
Rehana doesn't take her husband's calls anymore
"My life's ruined. What can I do with myself now? I had hoped to spend the rest of my life with him and look what he did to me," she says.

"I gave up everything to go with him - I thought we'd be together through thick and thin, but he clearly had other ideas."

Jahanara is a victim of what is known as the triple talaq, where a husband exercises his right to divorce his wife within a matter of minutes.

Islamic scholars say the Koran clearly spells out how to issue a divorce.

It has to be spread over three months which allows a couple time for reconciliation.

But today, many men use the post, the telephone or even the short messaging service (sms) to divorce their wives.

Instant divorce

Rehana does not answer her mobile phone when her husband, Akram, calls.

She has been married for 20 years and has four grown up children.

Muslims at prayer
The clergy is trying to spread the word
In January this year, Akram threw her out of their house and got married again a month later.

Rehana now lives in constant fear.

"He might say 'talaq' on the phone to me," she says.

"I don't answer my phone when I see his number. I want to spend the remaining years of my life as his wife. I don't want a divorce."

Muslim women's rights activists are outraged by such incidents.

"There's nothing in the Koran that allows triple, verbal, instantaneous talaq. There's no greater anathema than the kind of talaq that has now become the greatest black mark against gender in Islam," says Sayeeda Hamid.

Raising awareness

There have been attempts in the past to focus on the ills of instant divorce.

The clamour to ban the practice has forced the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to take up the matter at a recent meeting.

A spokesman, Syed Qasim Rasool Ilyas, says the board does not have the authority to ban the practice.

"The majority of the ulema [clergy] thinks that it's legal, it's binding. They say it's according to the Sharia [Islamic code].

"Now how can the Muslim Personal Law Board take a unilateral decision? The board cannot go against the Shariat."

Majid Akhtar Siddiqui
Majid Siddiqui thinks Muslims should be flexible

"But," he says, "there's a consensus among the board that it's a sin and we'll try to discourage it."

To spread the word, mosques have been roped in.

During Friday prayers at a Delhi mosque, more than 1,000 men, young and old, kneel on the floor, listening to Maulana Jalaluddin Umri's sermon.

He devotes two-thirds of the 45-minute-long prayer to talk about the issue.

And it appears to have made an impact on the congregation.

Naseemuddin says the clergy should find a way to ban the practice.

"If you're Muslim, you have to follow the Koran. We have to face the reality and tackle it constructively," he says.

Majid Akhtar Siddiqui, a mechanical engineer, says society must be flexible.

"I have seen real experiences in life, where sometimes problems arise between couples. Now, we have to sort out these problems, not create more problems."

But Sayeeda Hamid thinks an awareness campaign is not enough.

"The first thing that should be done is that they should completely, totally ban triple, verbal, instantaneous talaq. They should simply say it's cancelled, it cannot happen. So the men cannot treat their marriage as something that can be trifled with."

That's little consolation for women like Jahanara and Rehana.

For them the Muslim Personal Law Board's awareness campaign is too little too late.


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