Debating India

A reprehensible "verdict"

Saturday 2 July 2005

The fatwa of the Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom Deoband, asking a Muslim woman, who was allegedly raped by her father-in-law, not to live with her husband calls into question the fundamental principles of human dignity and freedom enshrined in the Constitution. By invoking antiquated religious codes, the fatwa in effect punishes the victim, Imrana of Muzaffarnagar, and provides an escape route to the alleged offender, Ali Mohammed, who is currently in police custody. Quite astonishingly, the religious edict allowed rape, one of the most heinous crimes, to annul a legally valid 10-year-old marriage. Actually, the muftis of Deoband asked Imrana to live with her father-in-law, citing the Shariat in support of their decree. Imrana’s husband, Noor Ilahi, wants to continue to live with her, but the muftis of the religious seminary have thrown the Shariat at them. The societal pressures on her are such that she has stated she would abide by the "religious laws" even if the fatwa has no force in law. Indeed, Imrana is now being prodded to withdraw the rape complaint and to dilute the charge to "molestation" so that she does not have to separate from her husband and their five children.

Clearly, the ends of justice would not be served by some balancing act that would let Imrana live with the man of her choice without appearing to violate the religious decrees which are blatantly illegal. Fatwas, whether or not mandated by religious scriptures, have no place in a secular society. Human rights and gender justice are too important to be left in the hands of clerics and priests. Village councils and community bodies formed on the basis of caste or religion have for a long time exercised an extra-judicial authority over people, especially in rural areas. Drawing their strength from "custom and tradition," such bodies steeped in prejudice, ignorance and superstition and wholly out of tune with the modern values of dignity and equality, have played havoc with the lives of people. If Imrana’s fate is to be decided by the muftis, then no Muslim woman would dare report similar instances of rape. The All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board and secular women’s organisations such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association and National Federation of Indian Women have condemned the fatwa, but Imrana will need help from other quarters as well. While it might be too much to expect the infamously conservative All India Muslim Personal Law Board to intervene effectively in this case, the National Commission for Women can do much more than promise Imrana help in fighting the case. Strangely, the National Commission for Minorities has not been very supportive. Imrana’s situation is emerging as a test case that could have far-reaching implications for Muslim women, who find the personal laws skewed in favour of men. Not surprisingly, such illiberal interpretations of the Shariat have led to demands for a reform to protect the rights and the dignity of women.

See online : The Hindu

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