In 1986, as a junior reporter in the now defunct daily, 'The Patriot', I was exploring the possibility of developing expertise in a well-defined area. Law and its various interpretations seemed a good option and so I had attached myself to Danial Latifi, the lawyer who represented Shah Bano when she appealed in the Supreme Court in 1986. Latifi had, in fact, been her advisor all the while her case had struggled through the lower courts.
A Muslim woman from Indore, Shah Bano had been summarily divorced in the triple Talaq way and had then struggled alone to bring up her three children. It was only when she reached the age when she could not work anymore that she had asked for maintenance from her husband who was doing comparatively well.
|We were deep into the case, reading up the earlier representations and appeals, arguing and discussing its various aspects. We were a group of seven young men and women with Latifi, a veteran, heading the team. Every time a court passed a positive verdict, her husband appealed against it in a higher one. Finally the Supreme Court delivered its judgement, ruling that Shah Bano is entitled to support.
The outcome was like a personal victory, one that was truly revolutionary in its implications for society. We all felt that we would be able to look back and say, "I lent a hand in setting this revolution into motion."
The initial response from the government, elected Member of Parliaments and NGOs was positive, each claiming that it took the battle for gender equality nearer its goal. However, Muslim men, the Ullema and Muslim institutions started reacting, claiming that the judgement constituted an interference with Islamic Law. The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, fearing a severe backlash and the possibility that the verdict would alienate his political party, the Congress, from Muslims, reacted by telling the community to be more supportive of their divorced destitute women. Shah Bano appealed thrice to the local administration and then to Rajiv Gandhi and the Centre, that her life was being threatened and that she should be provided some sort of protection. It did not come. In desperation she asked the SC to review her case and the verdict.
The subsequent quashing of the verdict by the Parliament was not like a personal loss, it was like the loss of an era that might have been.
In the beginning, our group was disappointed but we did not lose hope. There would be meetings, seminars, discussions on law for women and the Muslim Personal law. We were sure that educated Muslim woman would take to the streets. After all, the loss was as much that of poor, uneducated, unemployed Muslim women, as it was Shah Bano's. We also believed that many liberal and the progressive men from the community would stand by our side. Were we not their daughters, sisters, mothers and wives?
Excerpts from "My God is a Woman"
The crumpled piece of newspaper who answered for the Station Master was least interested in hearing their story. The Sikh persisted and at the mention of Shah Bano, the crumpled newspaper seemed to crease out. He listened, glancing from one to the other, and asked, "How many people in Indore know that you are coming?"
"None," replied Safia.
"Good. But not good enough. Information network of the other side is strong. Please stay in my office while I see the train off. When it is light, I shall escort you to her house."
"There is no need to do so. I can take a cycle rickshaw. I have the address."
"Shah Bano is not allowed to meet anyone. She has given the affidavit asking the Supreme Court to review its decision, or else she shall be withdrawing her case. She is never left alone. You shall have to wear a 'burqa' and pose as a strict Muslim come to reform her. Maybe then you might stand a chance and be allowed to meet her. I am a Muslim and I am with you in this just cause. Please do as I say."
..."It is a false affidavit, given under duress." Imtiaz Ali spoke after a long silence in which he prepared tea and cleared the saucepan before handing her a chipped cup. "It has to be," he added taking a sip.
..."I had gone to meet her - Shah Bano. She is a distant cousin and I am a devout Muslim. So it was possible. She offered me tea. She never had on my earlier visits. When I refused, she insisted saying, 'Please do. I am now a rich woman, receiving one hundred and seventy nine rupees and twenty paisa as maintenance. You better have the tea while the going is good'. When we were alone, which was only for a few minutes she kept quiet for a few moments and then burst out laughing. At herself? At the world that took cognizance of her after so many years? At me, who met her but rarely and had now come to view her as something of a rarity, a museum piece? The courage of the destitute to laugh at themselves."
...Safia tried to plan her modus operandi. ...To be honest, except for trying to contact Danial Latifi, Shah Bano's lawyer and leaving a message on his answering machine, she had not done any sensible planning.
...The polite cough brought her back to the present and he smiled apologetically. "I'll have to leave now. I want to say one thing - I am glad you are here. I had given up on the educated Muslim women. They say one thing and retract it before you have turned around. Shah Bano's only hope is women like you or those in the same position as her."
..."An illiterate housewife from the village Manakpur, of district Badayun, Uttar Pradesh has made the first open expression of support - 'It's all very well for the Mullahs to defend the Shariat. But when a poor girl gets divorced who is going to feed her. Especially if her relatives themselves are poor."
... Yes, that was it - the poor destitute woman - that is where the crux of the matter lies. Everything boils down to economics and that is why the poor woman would support this fight for economic justice - the same reason why men would continue to oppose it. It has to be the women who do not know where their next meal would come from, who have to stand up, have to be convinced to fight and fight they will, because they have nothing to lose. She had been wrong in believing that the educated and the well-to-do would rise up. Why would they, who had for centuries believed themselves as the upper class, the genteel, the privileged? Why would they take up arms for those whom they have considered the scum of the earth, little more than worms, to be used and crushed? They lived as parasites and they knew that there was no survival for them minus the host who maybe receptive or hostile. They must cling on.
(Excerpted from 'My God is a Woman' By Noor Zaheer; Published by Vitasta; Pp: 305; Price: Rs 295)
Alas, nothing like that happened. Two discussions organized by Latifi went largely unattended. A few write-ups defending out position surfaced but did not even cause a ripple. The Left, which talks so much of gender equality, talked as much about a change that must come from within the Muslim community. Nobody had raised the basic question: if the clergy had been willing to review the law, would they not have do so a century earlier, when women in India had emerged as an entity?
So was it back to the status quo? How could we have been so wrong? The conservatives were no longer satisfied with letting things be.
They had seen the power of the law of the land and they wanted to seal the religious boundaries to stop anymore of what they termed as 'interference'. It was now going to be an aggression. It was not the freedom seekers who took to the streets. It was the ones who wanted to sell shackles and chains who did. They passed 'Fatwa' (a legal opinion or ruling issued by an Islamic scholar) against women not wearing the veil, and they openly spoke against the education of women. The problem was that even if one did not adhere to the 'Shariat' and did not accept it as the final law for Muslim women, it was still applicable and could be used to overcome any resistance. This paradox led me to write my book, "My God is a Woman".
In spite of the initial shrugging of shoulders over the outcome of Shah Bano's effort to find justice for herself, I still hoped that something of it would remain in the form of a movement. A slow, passive resistance, but a struggle nonetheless. On the contrary, conservatism grew into fundamentalism. Discussion and debate on the "Shariat" became a taboo. The fear of a secular society having an impact on all its components has led to an onslaught on anything that seems faintly reformist or liberal. The educated, progressive men in the community have nothing to gain from any review of the Muslim Personal Law as so they don't demand it.
Shah Bano's cause is largely forgotten and so are the reformist movements in Islam that at the turn of the last century had reflected the fact that no faith can afford to be static.
It is time, therefore, to do some retelling so that there can be a little re-thinking, a bit of reviving and possibly a lot of reforming.