A woman is raped by her father-in-law. She raises alarm. The village panchayat, which includes a local Maulvi, decrees that she is no longer 'pure' for the husband and so must marry her father-in-law. It also decrees that the marriage now stands annulled and her five children will remain the responsibility of her husband, Noor Ilahi. This village verdict is supported by a well-known seminary, Darul Uloom, Deoband.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of Imrana Bibi of Chhartawal village in district Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. Muslim Women's Forum team members - Naheed Taban and Kishwar Saleem, who visited Chhartawal and Kookra (Imrana's native village) on June 21, 2005 - confirm the sequence of events.
This heinous case of incest and domestic violence is placed in the full glare of public scrutiny. Muslim women and Islamic injunctions have once again become the subject of media debates and drawing room discussions; demands for a Uniform Civil Code are back, and various political parties are capitalizing on the victimization of Imrana - these are some of the outcomes of the case.
In this article, I want to deal with two issues:
If one could rip aside the veil that shrouds domestic spaces, one would find an Imrana, a Mohammad Ali and a Noor Ilahi in many households, regardless of religion, caste, class and community. But the silence that gags daughters and daughters-in-law kills and buries such cases within household spaces. Imrana, having broken this silence, is not forgiven.
- Violence against women; and
- Muslim women and the injunctions of Islam.
Within days, seminarians of Deoband and some venerable members of the Muslim Personal Law Board endorse this obscure verdict. Imrana - initially determined to stick to her husband despite the strictures of Maulvis and the biraadari (community) - capitulates, saying, "I will do what is required by the Shariah."
Now for the question that crops up whenever a Muslim woman suffers violence and the seminarians jump in with fatwas and verdicts, whether it is the case of Shah Bano, Gudiya or Imrana. What is the Islamic and Sharia stand on such issues? How anti-gender is Islam?
What does Shariat enjoin for a woman who has been raped by the father of her husband? Does it say that her marriage stands annulled? Does it say that any child born to her would now be her husband's sibling? These are some of the arguments advanced by the Deobandis and others in favor of annulment of this marriage. I want these 'keepers of religion' to point to the exact provision in the Quran from which this interpretation has been extrapolated.
The beauty of Islam is its eclectic nature and the fact that it is open to many interpretations. When we say 'Islam is not a monolith', we mean exactly that. Islam has six main schools of jurisprudence; then there are many sub-schools. The enormous spread of Islam following the death of the Prophet was due to its capacity to touch the inner soul of millions by according respect to their own ideas and beliefs. This also explains the popularity in India of the Sufi Islam of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer.
As a believing Muslim woman, I, too have inalienable rights; the right to understand and interpret Islam. The Quranic injunction 'Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein' is my guiding light.
Having said that, let us turn to the text of the Quran. Surah Al Nisa, Verse 22, states that there are certain relationships that are sacred and that marriage among them is forbidden. The Quran lists such relationships clearly. From this one gathers that a father-in-law cannot marry a daughter-in-law.
But what does this injunction have to do with rape? The issue is not whether Mohammad Ali wants to marry Imrana, but that he raped her. Mohammad Ali committed the crime of zina bil jabr, meaning forced sexual intercourse. The entire spirit underlying the Quran holds him guilty of the worst gunah (crime) and places him on the list of worst offenders. And what does this rape have to do with marriage? There is no way that can we extrapolate from the above verse of Surah Al Nisa that Imrana, having been raped by Mohammad Ali, has become haram for her husband.
Quranic verses, scattered all over the Holy Book, are imbued with the most amazing instances of gender sensitivity. I will cite two examples. There is an order that casting any kind of aspersions on women without solid proof is punishable by flogging. This arose from an instance where the Prophet's wife, Ayesha, was left behind when the caravan in which she was traveling moved on, and a male slave escorted her back several hours later. When tongues started wagging, they were severely silenced and thereby a precedent was created for all women. The second is the repeated emphasis on generosity towards women. Giving them their mehr, their dower, at the time of marriage, and in case of a divorce allowing them to leave with 'beauty of good demeanor' (husn-e-suluk).
Maluana Abul Kalam Azad and many scholars have written that the Quran was meant as Divine Guidance for ordinary women and men, which was easily understood by them; but very soon it was made complicated and unintelligible by scholars and theologians. In fact, when he completed his Tarjumanul Quran, Maulana Azad was not satisfied until he had read it out to an 11-year-old child and a neo-literate and they confirmed that they understood the content.
The crux of the matter is that there is nothing in the Quran that forbids a man from continuing his conjugal relationship with a wife who has been wronged, violated or brutalized by anyone, including his own blood relative. In fact, he is duty-bound to give his best and most tender care to her for that very reason.
We, Muslims as a community, are responsible for the anti-women image that has become synonymous with Islam. With great anguish I ask the Deobandis: Do you know what a great blow you have dealt to the spirit of Islam by acquiescing with 'Bhaura Masjid'? I also ask all religious leaders: Do you realize that by not coming out in open condemnation of this convoluted interpretation of Islam, what a body blow you have dealt to a religion that - 1,400 years ago - gave property rights to the hapless women of the Arabian Peninsula?
Can we really point fingers at the political parties that are using this incident to their own ends, when we have provided them with a ready platform?
In the past, reformist scholars and maulanas - such as 19th Century intellectuals like Maulana Asraf Ali Thanvi and Maulana Altaf Husain Hali - had warned the community against allowing its anti-gender attitudes to become identified with Islam. When will modern-day obscurantist religious leaders begin to heed their call and learn to respect gender?