Let us look at the Quran and its spirit vis-'-vis women, before we delve into the story of Gudiya, which has become, in recent weeks, the daily ware of the visual and print media.
During the time of Prophet Mohammad, women freely questioned him about their status in the holy book. Tabari, in his treatise on the history of Islam records that the Prophet's wife Umm Salama had asked her husband, 'Why are men mentioned in the Quran and why are we not?' It was after this query that the following lines were revealed in verse 35 of Surah 33, Al Ahzab:
For believing men and women
For true men and women
For devout men and women...
For them has Allah prepared
Forgiveness and a great reward
The issue of masawaat or equality of men and women is once and for all settled in these lines. Allah spoke of the two sexes in terms of total equality. Having established this, the next text to turn to, is Surah Al Nisa (The Women), containing laws on marriage, divorce, property and conduct. These were revolutionary verses, which overturned pre-Islamic practices.
Surah Al Nisa not only laid down the law that women could no longer, as cattle and camels, be inherited by men but that they could themselves inherit. And they could enter into competition with men for sharing of fortunes. The Quranic lines are "Unto the men belongs a share of what the parents and near kindred leave and unto women a share of what the parents and near kindred leave." These verses must have shattered the foundations of the patriarchal structures of Medina. Little wonder that the Prophet had to suffer immensely at the hands of the qabilas (tribes) for the boldness of his anti-establishment views.
What does this have to do with the story of Gudiya - the woman who suddenly found her world turned upside down because of the unexpected appearance of her husband who was presumed dead?
I am neither a Qazi nor a Mufti but a simple reader of the Quran. I am also a firm believer in the Quranic words that Allah is closer to all human beings (read women and men) than their jugular vein. Therefore, Islam has given me the right to understand and practice its injunctions according to my own light. And it is in this light that I read in the above lines the Islamic view of Gudiya-Taufiq-Arif conundrum. In Islam all three individuals enjoy equal rights. In this regard the Preamble to Indian Constitution, which promises "equality of status and opportunity" to all citizens, in my view, is very much imbued with the Islamic spirit.
There are two long Surahs - Surah Al Baqr and Surah Al Nisa - which are replete with injunctions about how women should be treated. In marriage, for example, a girl's consent is mandatory. At the time of Nikah, the Qazi must ask the girl if she is giving consent of her free will. No matter how sparse the Nikahnama, the girl, along with the boy, must affix her signature. It is another matter that the girls who say 'Yes' or who sign the register often have no choice. But that is the fault of the practitioners of Islam; it is not a fault of the religious injunction.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in his 'Tarjuman-ul-Quran' writes about this "malaise" of the Muslims: "Instead of remaining in the Book of Allah, the fountainhead of Hidaya (teaching) transferred into the hands of a few individuals. They turned the people blind and deaf and used them for their selfish ends. People stopped using their own minds. They became immersed in superstition and ignorance. Thus all the paths to the enlightenment and progress of human intellect were firmly shut."
As in all matters, on the subject of divorce too, the Quran gives equal rights to women and men. Just as the man can divorce, so can the woman. The only difference is that in her case, the woman must approach the Qazi for Khula. (This was done because traditional Arab society still had a long way to go before internalizing Islam's egalitarian concept and meanwhile the woman's right had to be enshrined.)
Let us now consider Arif, Gudiya and Taufiq in the above context, and away from the media hype and the cacophony of social comment. Without exception, Gudiya has been treated like a doll (which is what her name means) by everyone. The parents marry her off (to Arif), very likely without her informed consent. The man leaves for duty at the border within a month of marriage. Then he disappears for five years, assumed "missing in action" (read dead). Then Gudiya's parents, with the knowledge of Arif's parents, marry her off to her cousin, Taufiq. There is no question of seeking a divorce because she is assumed to be a widow and Islam strongly favors widow remarriage. Was Gudiya a willing party when she married Taufiq? One does not know!
However, The Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act (1939) states that, "A woman married under Muslim law shall be entitled to obtain a decree for the dissolution of her marriage" on several grounds. The very first ground is "that the whereabouts of her husband have not been known for period of four years." This act was piloted by the famous scholar Maulana Asraf Ali Thanwi who wanted to rescue women from the odious practice of having to wait 99 years for the husband to turn up. In every era, enlightened Maulanas and others have fought for the rights of women. But today who will fight for Gudiya (and others like her)?
In 2000, the Muslim Women's Forum was formed with a view to doing precisely that. There are many other women's organizations, Muslim and non-Muslim who take up the cause of Muslim women. For us, the spirit of Islam and the Shariat lies in the first few words spoken by Gudiya when she heard that Arif had been found and was soon to be released. Gudiya, pregnant with their first child, said she wanted to stay with Taufiq. "Marriage is not child's play, sometimes here sometimes there. I love my husband and will stay with him for life," she said.
Ultimately, what is paramount is Gudiya's choice. No Muslim Panchayat held under the glare of TV cameras has the right to take away that choice.
To coerce Gudiya into making any decision is a negation of the Islamic principle. The concept of Allah in Islam is Rahman and Rahim (merciful and compassionate). The cruelty and injustice meted out to Gudiya in this entire episode is the negation of this concept.