The article is with contributions from Asif Iqbal (DHANAK) and Wanette Tuinstra (GOLDENROOM, UK)
Shailaja Rao and Zubair Mohammad are an interfaith Hindu-Muslim couple. They married despite an incredulous display of opposition from both civil authorities and self-appointed community leaders, both of who claimed that their actions in contravention to the Special Marriage Act (1954) were in fact in the couple’s best interest.
Fortunately, Shailaja and Zubair were not dissuaded and twenty five years and two children later, are able to share their tale together which although, heartwarming, remains acutely relevant to today.
"Our story has the elements that formulate a typical Bollywood movie. Boy meets girl; they fall in love and plan to get married; parents oppose; they get married anyway and live happily ever after. Many interfaith couples experience a similar outline but once details are appended, each couple has a unique story to tell.” begins Shailaja.
“Zubair and I met in 1984. At first, we developed a great friendship and respect for each other. Later, realizing our friendship had a deeper meaning we decided to get married. We both were determined on having a court marriage but were open to satisfying our parents' wishes regarding wedding celebrations, if they were agreeable to our relationship. That sadly did not happen.
“We went ahead and filed for the Notice of Intended Marriage required for the Special Marriage Act and submitted it on April 1, 1985. In India, there is a mandatory one month waiting period before a couple can solemnize their marriage. During this period, a public notice is displayed on a bulletin board outside the court building. In addition, a notice is sent to the parents/guardians. These are the main deterrents for couples who intend to marry in such a way. We were however blissfully ignorant of these potential issues. The strongest aspect of the Special Marriage Act is that it is a civil contract between two people, irrespective of a religion or faith they follow and there are no ceremonial requirements. This appealed to us.
“During the month long waiting period, we had someone who claimed to be a lawyer visit our home. He tried to convince me that I was making a mistake which would be devastating for the rest of my life. He eventually left with no assurance from me to even consider backing off from what I intended to do.
“In addition to this incident, unexpectedly, a notice of our imminent marriage got delivered by mail. My father dismissed my intentions as silly and childish. I believe he assumed I was really not going to go ahead with it.
“We intended to get married as soon as the waiting period was completed. Zubair was firm about not waiting any longer than required to avoid issues that could possibly creep up if the word about our marriage got around.
“The morning of our wedding, I attempted to get my parents’ approval one last time, by telephone as they were abroad. Their answer was not any different from their previous ones. Zubair and I went ahead with making arrangements for our trip to the court.
“Despite having been extremely cautious, Zubair could sense something was stirring up in his office when the staff found out why he was applying for leave that day. He decided there was no time to spare and we had to get to the court sooner rather than later.
“We rushed into an auto rickshaw and on our way picked up some of our friends who accompanied us to the court. We breathed a sigh of relief when we got there safely and our excitement was building at the thought that we would soon be recognised as husband and wife. Little did we know that the real drama was yet to unfold.
“We eagerly looked forward to being called into the magistrate's room. More friends gathered to support and celebrate with us. We were guided into the room by the court staff. But as we entered, we were startled to see some familiar faces inside the room. These men were from my father's workplace.
“It became apparent that they had managed to dash to the courthouse before we did and had already discussed their disapproval over our impending marriage with the magistrate. The magistrate began by saying that I was not of marriageable age despite having my date of birth on paper. When he noticed I did not succumb to his nonsensical comment, he went on to say that my parents (who were living abroad at the time) were on their way to participate in the ceremony and that we should wait for them. This remark didn't hold with us either. I told him that I had spoken to my parents a few hours ago and they were aware of my intention of getting married and were unwilling to participate.
"Eventually, the magistrate was running out of ideas on how to stop the marriage and decided to separate me from everyone else so he could speak to me alone. Then, I was taken to another room along with the familiar men to have a conversation. There, they repeatedly explained how they were trying to protect me and considered me as their daughter. After much effort on their part, they gave up as I stood firm with my decision.
“Once again back in the magistrate's room there was yet another round of debate. This time, our friends began to emphatically vocalize their support for us. The magistrate finally buckled under pressure and went ahead to complete the formalities of the marriage process. The day was May 2, 1985.”
Shailaja and Zubair’s succeeded in getting married but their tale is not unique. Despite the commitment and tenacity of couples such as them who availed themselves of the Special Marriage Act of 1954, the last sixty years in India have actually borne witness to an increasing hostility to Interfaith and inter caste couples. Asif Iqbal of DHANAK, an advocacy and support organisation for Inter Faith and Inter Caste couples, explains that: “The situation has not changed over the last 60 years in India. Although, Mixed marriages are getting media attention now the situation has become worse due to the involvement of religious organizations. Religious hatred, patriarchal mindsets and poor legal and administrative support are the challenges to interfaith marriage. “
The Special Marriage Act (1954) is the only civil marriage legislation in India that permits interfaith marriage, in that the faiths of the marrying couple are essentially irrelevant. Elsewhere in India, interfaith couples could be married in a Hindu ceremony and the marriage registered in a Hindu Marriage Act (1955) if one of the partners converts to Hinduism. Alternatively, in some states an Islamic nikah is possible, again if one of the partners converts to Islam.
Indeed for many interfaith couples in India, conversion is the most expedient route to marriage. Avantika Srivastva, Program Coordinator at AALI’s Resource Centre (Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives, a Lucknow-based feminist advocacy group that addresses issues of violence against women and has been working on women’s right to choice in sexual relationships.) explains that
“When couples apply to be married under the Special Marriage Act, a one-month notice announcing the marriage is put up in court. This creates fear in the minds of couples of word of their marriage reaching their families. They are also afraid that if someone in the family comes to know, it could even lead to honor killing.” Precisely the experience of Shailaja and Zubair.
“But if the boy or girl converts, they have the option of either going to an Arya Samaj mandir, in which case they will get a marriage certificate by end of the day, or doing a nikah, in which case they will get a nikah nama, which is also a legally valid document. So this also a reason why the boy or the girl converts” explains Srivastva further.
The incentive to convert in order to facilitate a recognized marriage however does not solve the wider social issues that underpin the opposition to interfaith and inter caste marriage in India. Asif Iqbal of DHANAK explains that,
"Although, it’s a constitutional right to any Indian citizen to adopt, practice, and preach its religion, there are a few states like Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh etc. which curbs this right with their state laws (that are unconstitutional). Any interfaith couple who wish to go for a religious marriage in these listed states, have to intimate the local authorities about conversion of one of the couples, as no religious marriage is possible between interfaith couples (particularly Hindu-Muslim couple) without religious conversion of one of the couples. The only option of marriage under Special Marriage Act (SMA) is too challenging for many couples…so basically, the couple can’t get married.”
“In other states where there is no state law against religious conversion the couple prefer religious marriage as it is quick and easy to perform but then there comes the question of Love Jihad.“
Love Jihad is the highly inflammatory, conspiracy driven, political term given by Hindu nationalists to instill fear in Hindu communities that Muslim men will seduce Hindu women, forced them to convert, undermine the caste system in order to propagate Islam and alter in their favor the religious demographics of India. The ‘Love Jihad’ banner is a highly effective fear tactic to keep communities segregated, sanction honor related violence and maintain the political stranglehold of patriarchy. It encourages violent crimes against those women in particular who dare to defy tradition- and risk diluting their community identity- by marrying outside of their caste or religion. The same accusations have been hurled at Christians and Buddhists accused of luring Hindus from lower castes into the fold. Asif Iqbal explains that, “The religious organizations are becoming vocal and violent against interfaith marriages as they want to retain the social order and mixed marriages are an aberration which is affecting the purity of race also. Unfortunately they are too powerful to be opposed and have their significant presence in India.”
The rationale behind the ‘love jihad’ conspiracy and the very real consequences on the safety of many interfaith and inter caste couples in India, goes some way in explaining why civil authorities- such as the magistrate in the case of Shailaja and Zubair -are often complicit in opposing and preventing mixed marriages, and are willing to contradict the legal provisions available to interfaith and inter caste couples.
Inter faith and Inter caste couples in India, not only face particular legal obstructions to their marriage, but find few places to turn. The hostility to Mixing in India means that interfaith and inter caste couples often have to go on the run, because even the police are known to return young women to their families. In some cases young women are pressured to lie and claim they were raped or otherwise duped into a marriage in order to save the family’s honor. The young man is subsequently charged with kidnapping and a cycle of communal vengeance ensues, with deadly consequences.
“This an extremely serious issue. This kind of a campaign will have serious negative implications on couples who are in inter-religious relationships and marriages. They will be afraid now of being attacked or having such allegations levelled against them. Such statements (raising fears about ‘love jihad) have strong impact on people because it has to do with religious sentiments, with people’s faith and beliefs. When such insecurities are created in the minds of parents, they’ll be afraid that their daughters will be trapped. And because of such feelings of insecurity, the vulnerability and violence against women will only increase,” says Avantika Srivastva, from AALI’s Resource Centre.
Asif Iqbal of DHANAK adds, that “Conversion is an issue for inter faith couples, but in the way it is being pitched as Love Jihad is very dangerous. It leads to hatred and threatens the very existence of inter-faith couples. The entire list of questions like poor implementation and awareness of the Special Marriage Act, control over the sexuality, liberty and equality of women, and faith based co-existence are being brushed away by the term, ‘Love Jihad.’”
The prospect of ‘love jihad’ encourages many families to adopt ever more restrictive practices to safeguard the undue burden placed upon girls and women to maintain the purity of the community, such as forced early marriage, and removal from integrated schools and workplaces. The arranged marriage system which underpins Indian family life is adopted by Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs in order to preserve family lineage, cultural and religious traditions. Interfaith and inter caste marriages not only threaten the homogeneity of India’s faith communities but are also a significant challenge to the pervasive, institutionalized inequality, best exemplified by the caste system. Kancha Illia, Director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad writing on the phenomenon of interfaith and inter caste marriages in India, explains that many women throughout India’s history have embraced other faiths in order to secure their wellbeing and equality. Illia cites the case of the Brahminic lower caste Hindu women had been ostracized by society, forced to go semi- naked and whose ‘untouchableness’ forced them endure seclusion and exploitation, until the Cheraman Perumal royals converted many of them to Islam in the early 6th century.
Illia writes that, for loving Muslim men was a true jihad, a resistance against oppression for these lower caste women as it improved their status and wellbeing and in some ways liberated them. In his view, if certain patriarchal forces in India want to stop conversion, or ‘ If they, indeed, want to stop “love jihad”, they should take up massive social reforms amongst all castes. The reforms should be spiritual, cultural, and include the dimension of man-woman relationship.”
The fear tactics against interfaith and inter-caste Marriage, from ‘Love Jihad’ to honor related violence, to obstructive civil authorities and legal mechanisms also nearly completely obfuscate the benefits and particular joys of inter faith and inter caste family life. Asif Iqbal is effusive in explaining both the personal delights of an interfaith marriage and the wider social benefits,
“The joys of interfaith marriage is about celebrating different festivals like Holi, Diwali, EIDs, Christmas etc. Moreover, it has also helped us to be rationale about various religious practices and beliefs. The understanding about other faith has increased.”
“Marriage has its challenges irrespective of its nature. Couples associated with DHANAK feel happy about their mixed marriage. Although, it is equally challenging to swim upstream. It’s a perpetual challenge because we are living and leading our lives according to our terms and perception of faith. The pride and perspective about interfaith alliance are shared from personal experiences in regular meetings and mails.”
Aside from the threats stemming from ‘love jihad’ propaganda and providing that the couple can find a way forward through the legalities of interfaith and inter caste marriage, a key concern about interfaith marriage is that the children will be neither one faith nor the other, and will be confused, but Asif Iqbal’s perception is refreshingly, quite the opposite. “Actually, it is we are confused, not the children of mixed parentage. Children are smart enough to deal with the diversities and complexities of life. The differences between the parents are healthy ones, provided they are resolved or debated peacefully. Differences will appear normal if the parents believe in equality and respect other faiths and so shall the message will be conveyed to the kids. It’s important the message related to faith disputes between the parents should be conveyed properly to the kids or else it will leave a bitter taste in the child’s mind and he or she will evolve her own way of dealing with it.”
Reflecting on her own lengthy experience, Shailaja and Zubair are also emphatic that respect has also been a key component for a successful interfaith marriage, and Shailaja also has some further advice for Mixed couples, “The advice I give to future interfaith couples is that the foundation for any marriage is love and respect for each other. I also emphasize that it is beneficial for both individuals to be financially independent. I believe this gives the freedom and confidence to take that daring step in a society which is plagued by a caste system, religious tensions and a patriarchal mentality.”
For Zubair and Shailaja, twenty five years of interfaith love has proven to be its own greatest joy and benefit, and is an experience they want to share with others. “On the occasion of our 25th wedding anniversary I started an Interfaith Marriage group in Facebook.” Explains Shaliaja of her decision to widen the benefits of interfaith marriage to other couples and wider society, “My intention to start this group was to see what type of issues couples face in these times and to help in some way. The group has grown to over 450 members. The group has exposed me to many wonderful people worldwide with similar interests, backgrounds etc. and it has been extremely rewarding. “
Despite experiences of bureaucratic obstinacy, family opposition and even threats, Shailaja and Zubair as well as Iqbal and the other volunteers at DHANAK are humble in their acknowledgement that their cross cultural marriages and families will have a bigger impact on building an Indian society of equality and tolerance. For Shailaja, her inspiration and hope is best exemplified by her favorite quote from John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’
“You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us. And the world will live as one."