The times are a-changing in Bhopal. In 2005, around 76 per cent of the divorce claims to the qazi (who solemnizes or dissolves marriages) were made by Muslim women. Until recently, barely 20 per cent of all divorce claims were by women. Take 2004, when only 21 per cent divorce claims were by women. But things seem to have changed drastically in just a year.
The Bhopal qaziat (where Muslim marriages are held) is now flooded with divorce requests from women. The approval of the qaziat is required to execute the divorces.
Their increasing numbers have led all - religious leaders, activists and social scientists - to sit up and examine the reasons behind this trend.
The change, some say, is inevitable in a city that was ruled by four strong-willed begums for almost 100 years. In Bhopal, after the decline of the Mughal empire and the rise of the Nawabs, Qudsia Begum (1819-37), Sikander Jahan Begum (1844-68), Shahjahan Begum (1868-1901) and Sultanjahan Begum (1901-1926) brought about radical changes in society. Qudsia Begum was the first female ruler of Bhopal who refused to follow the purdah (veil) tradition.
She was succeeded by her daughter Sikander Jahan, who was named after Alexander the Great. She too, never wore a veil, was trained in martial arts, and fought many battles for her state. The rule of the four women ensured that women in the region were given a higher status.
However, besides the radical tradition, activists say that it is their efforts in bringing about changes in the Muslim laws that have encouraged women to seek divorce when necessary. At the All India Muslim Personal Law Board meeting held in Bhopal in 2005, a 'model' nikahnamah (marriage contract) was prepared by the board. Activists say that although the nikahnamah did make some positive suggestions to enhance Muslim women's rights, it did not recognize a woman's right to end a marriage if she was unhappy or dissatisfied.
According to media reports, the model nikahnamah advocated the utterance of 'talaq' once instead of thrice when a Muslim male wanted a divorce from his wife. While the triple talaq meant a final separation, the single talaq signified a divorce that could be revoked. The board's woman member, Uzma Nahid, believes that women should also be given the right to divorce. She says, "Women are not impulsive and do not seek divorce at the spur of the moment."
Despite these restrictions, many women in Bhopal are now unwilling to tolerate the atrocities of men and want to end their marriages. Nusrat Bano Ruhi, a women's rights activist, says the rise in the divorce claims by women is not going to please anyone. "Islam permits and recognizes divorce. But in a world dominated by males, the men have used it as a weapon to show their power," she says.
Educationist Afaq Ahmed says the reason for so many divorce claims is the change in social values. He also believes that the rule of women in Bhopal for over a century could also be a reason for such a change.
Religious leaders consider the change as very unhealthy for society. According to the city qazi Amirullah Khan, "Children have to bear the brunt when families break down. In the quarrel between the husband and wife, they are the biggest losers. They have to undergo all their lives the mental agony of separation from their parents and disintegration of family life."
The qazi says he tries for reconciliation in some cases, but feels that separation is better when relations have been damaged beyond repair.
In Islam, women too have the right to divorce. Called Khula (to free or dig out), this right enables a woman to free herself from an unhappy marriage.
Maulana Ishrat Ali believes that television serials play a significant role in breaking up families. "Girls waste a lot of time watching TV programs in which every type of social evil is shown. Slowly, the women develop the belief that separation could give them a better life and many women follow this in real life."
Some experts say educated girls are increasingly finding their partners incompatible and are asserting their desires. They are willing to opt for a divorce if they do not get what they want in marriage.
Amreen, a chartered accountant, was married to a boy working in a private company in Oman. After marriage, she felt she and her husband were very different and with time these differences only grew. She is now separated from her husband.
Nida worked in a private company, and was married to a relative - a businessman. When the husband started suffering losses in his business, he became acrimonious and fought too often with Nida. Despite efforts for reconciliation, the couple became more intolerant of each other. As Nida was financially independent, she found it easier to decide to divorce.