Monday, February 20, 2006

Not quite the deal I want

When I was growing up, I was given to believe that - as a girl - I'd got the best deal possible, being born into Islam.

Which other religion allows divorce? Allows remarriage for widows and divorcees. Makes sure that women get an equal share of the property. Provides for 'meher' which would permit a woman to either invest the money, or survive for a while, after a divorce. It even allows 'Muttah' ceremonies, a temporary alliance. And guess what, you actually need a woman's consent, before she's married off.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

It took me the last decade to discover how things really workd.

Sure, divorce is permissible, but only if the man is asking for it. A woman has to opt for a 'khula'. (And I know of several mullahs who think khula is not an option.) I have attended a few weddings. Nobody sits down with the bride and tells her of her rights. No mullah thinks it fit to tell the girl that - if she hates the man - she can exercise her right to 'khula'.

Muttah, of course, has been reduced to a 'shia thing'. Even amongst Shias in India, it is spoken of in whispers, redolent with contempt. Try asking for a six-month contract marriage, and see if the family agrees. See, if fact, if you can find any well-known maulana to officiate at a muttah ceremony. You'd have to bribe them to sign the papers. [It is interesting to note, in this context, that as far as I know, (correct me if I'm wrong) any children born of a Muttah arrangement remain with the wife.]

As far as property is concerned, I come across people who say that they've already spent the daughters' share of the property for her wedding and her dower. They don't ask the girl, of course, whether they should spend it thus, or not.... In any case, find me 100 muslim women in any Indian town who got an equal share of the family property, and I'll eat my words.

The insititution of meher has also been turned into a cruel joke. For one, it is hardly ever handed over at the time of the ceremony - which would enable the wife to invest it, save it, use it to develop her own business or something. If it is given at all, it is given at the time of divorce. But, the amount decided on remains the same, not accounting for inflation in the interim period.

No one seems to be agreed on how much of a meher is justified and fair to both parties. For instance, three generations ago, my grandmother's generation settled for no less than Rs 51,000 as meher. This would be some 70 years ago, when a small family could survive on as little as Rs 25 a month. Now, I hear of educated, 'well-settled' urban families refusing to pay even Rs 14,000. In fact, I know of one maulana in UP who refuses to officiate at weddings, if the meher is more than than Rs 31,000.

How long would Rs 31,000 last, if a woman finds herself out on the streets one stormy day?

(May I add, at this juncture, that such maulanas do not have an upper limit on their own income and are known to jet-set round the world, all expenses paid. Nor have I eer heard any maulana insist on low-key celebrations so that the bride's family is not burdened; nobody sees it fit to enforce the rule that it is the groom's family which must make all the preparations for the wedding.)


Even if I were to ignore these anomalies, and put them down to faulty implementation rather than irrevocable laws that have outlived their use, yet, there are some things that bothered me intensely.

One, that men were allowed to have four wives.
Second, that although divorce was permitted, the children remained with the father.
Third, that women were supposed to observe purdah.
Four, adoption is not allowed.

My grandpa explained the first away by pointing out that it became inevitable in those times - war was a permanent reality of those times and there just weren't enough men to go around (not to mention that with their weak immunity systems and their penchant for hunting down disaster wherever it lurked, many boys just didn't survive to a reproductive age). He said this would happen in all societies wherever the gender ratio was upset.
And he was right, perhaps.

However, by those standards, now that the gender ratio is not skewed against men, it is high time the laws changed.

Now, I have nothing against polygamy. I'm all for men having four wives, or a dozen, as long as I have the same rights.

That is not possible, my mother tells me, because then nobody would know who was having whose babies. How would you know who the father is?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the matter.

Islam is unfair to women simply because it assumes that it actually matters who your father is. It is built on a patriarchal, patriliear premise.

I could easily say "Why do men need to know? None of their business...", but clearly, the men would not agree. Which is why polyandry is unacceptable in most modern societies.

Many tribes have a tradition of polyandry, which is where the legend of Draupadi springs from. There are several civilisations where both polygyny and polyandry are practised, and no, there is no great bloodbath as a result. No social chaos.

The children?
Why, they belong to the mothers, of course!

And that is the key to my second grouse.

This is not about taking each other to court, and deciding who would be a better parent. This is not about allowing visitation rights, or even about property disputes. This is simply a rejection of the woman's claim on her children.

(Of course, this is not just limited to Muslim women. Some of my Hindu girl-friends are trapped because of the kids. But they do have the option of fighting it out in court. As long as the current religious laws exist, Muslim women don't have that option.)


Which brings me to adoption.

If adoption was permitted, if children could take on the name of the adoptive father, or even (gasp!) adoptive mother, then the whole edifice on which your marriage laws are based, crumbles...

If an adopted child can inherit your property, take on your name, then he/she is as good as a from-the-womb child. There would be a large percentage of people who would adopt, because they want kids, but not a marriage. And if this trend caught on, it would soon cease to matter who gives birth to whom.

Which would also explain India's laws which do not permit a single man to adopt. There's a built-in assumption that a man needs a wife. In many western countries, single women aren't permitted either.

And yes, I meant what I just said: single women/men are not permitted.
When a country frames a law (and continues to accept that law) saying that a man/woman are not allowed to raise a child alone, that is as good as saying that it does not approve of a person's single status. (After all, there's no law against widows or widowers raising kids by themselves). By default, this translates into social pressure, a denial of parenthood, an unhappy singledom.


And finally, there's my anger about the purdah. Or the hijaab.

Grandpa, that kind soul, tried to explain that away too.
He told me - Think of the desert. Think of how people in Jerusalem dressed. Look at pictures of Mother Mary. She could have been a Muslim, right? EVERYBODY was fully covered, head to toe. Everybody had a head-dress, even the men.
He was right, perhaps.

That doesn't explain why the Book has special injunctions for women. Why does it insist that we dress 'modestly', while making no such provisions for men?

My Grandpa, poor man, tried to take a liberal view of 'modesty'.

He said - in western cultures, modest clothing is very different from what we think appropriate. A bikini is perfectly appropriate for a beach, for instance... but they would think it scandalous if a woman went to work in a backless choli.
He was right, again.

But now that cultures are morphing, the worlds are shifting and values are transcending geography, why must we be bound to the modesty of a desert?

Besides, men in desert lands have long abandoned their head-coverings and their flowing robes. They don't get shot in the knees for wearing jeans, do they?

In my opinion, if protection of women is the issue here, why don't you just put a chastity belt on the men? Wouldn't that make more sense?

This is where religion kicks us in the stomach.

You don't get any answers except "The religion says so, so it must be done!"
You cannot argue: religious laws are immutable. The books cannot be rewritten and you cannot play prophet.

And that leaves you in the nowhere land of bitterness, disillusionment and an irrational desire to round up all the mullahs and maulanas in the world, and force them to live in a woman's body for the rest of their lives.... the thought brings much comfort, you know.



Innocent Bullet said...

Polygamy is something that I still cannot rationalize. However, I felt, while reading your piece, that your grudge is more with the community than law per se. Anyways, I have an English translation of Ayatollah Murtaza Muatahdiri's The Rights of Women in Islam. If you wish I could lend the same to you though I think the translation is pretty shoddy - long-winded and verbose - but still you get the import of his original words.

thalassa_mikra said...

Very well written Annie. Here's my two cents:

1. Even though an Indian Muslim man can obtain a near-instant divorce, a Muslim woman has to go through an arbitration court for her "khula". A long, arduous process.

2. "Muttah" or "sigheh" is not exactly a very gender equitable concept, especially since the rights to divorce remain so heavily loaded in favour of the man.

3. Muslim women do indeed fare better than Hindu women when it comes to property rights. They generally manage to inherit some property in practice, better than almost none for a majority of Hindu women. But in paper, Muslim women only gets half of what a male heir gets, while Hindu and Christian women get an equal share.

4. The less said about the mehr, the better. The amount in the nikahnama is usually a bare minimum, and an ex-colleague researching on these issues found that non-payment was rampant.

5. Custody for the father and denial of adoption are both heartbreaking. A friend of mine and her husband finally caved in and become legal guardians to a child, knowing fully well they couldn't pass on their property to him.

By the way, single Hindu women can adopt. But Muslim women and men, both single and married, can only become legal guardians.

Suhail said...

Your frustration is understandable and you've well highlighted some genuine concerns. Infact I shd thank you for bringing some points (you know why:). However you've mish-mashed them with in general totally illegal practices, hearsay and then some. Which disappoints me coz one expects more from you. Especially when you have such an understanding daddu and mom to boot, you don't need any maulana.(btw, any grandpa which can openly talk these issues with her granddaughter is cool in my book :). Say my Salaam to yr grandpa).

I started commenting but I guess it's gonna get quite long. Will come back soon.

Just a short comment here. Can you (and t_mikra) elaborate more on the adoption thing? AFAIK it's clearly allowed. One of my uncle in our native village adopted (a Hindu child if that matters) from an orphanage. Yes, they've even transferred all property in the child's name. I suppose I've come across many other adoptions. What is this legal guardian technicality? Would like to hear more abt it.

A longish response for other points is under construction.

thalassa_mikra said...

Suhail, my knowledge of the matter owes to the struggles of a friend and her husband to adopt a child.

Muslim Personal law in India is based mostly on interpretation of Sharia according to Hanafi tradition and case law based on past judgments. So I couldn't find the text of any law for the adoption thing, but I hope this link helps:

And this article

What it basically means is that any ancestral property cannot pass on to the child. The parents can only transfer their own non-ancestral property to the child if they transfer it to him/her during their own lifetime.

If they die intestate (without a will) the property will not pass on to the child. Even a will can be easily challenged in court by other relatives.

Also they cannot transfer their name to the child, which is immaterial for a number of Muslim families that don't necessarily adopt surnames.

This is a big issue for the Christian and Parsi community as well, because even they cannot adopt, and can only have legal guardianship under law.

Anonymous said...

sadly be it any religion women's right is last on their list.
Btw beware some fatwa flashing maulanas mite get on ur case.
kudos for braving this possibilty.

Ambar said...

Annie, got here via DP, and I must say, a fine post.

I could easily say "Why do men need to know? None of their business...", but clearly, the men would not agree. Which is why polyandry is unacceptable in most modern societies.

Polyandry is relatively unknown amongst apes (including humans of course). There is nothing modern or even ancient about this. Its for the simple reason that in apes, both parents are involved in rearing of offspring. It thus becomes vital for males to ensure that the offspring that he is "investing" time and resources in is his own. Polyandry as you pointed out would have made it near imposssible to figure out the father. There's a sound and fundamental reason for it being very rare.

Manini said...

clearly articulated..
but isnt it risky to air such views ? considering the 'tamasha'
(as u so well put it) going on in this world..
u r brave :)

Suhail said...

Thalassa_Mikra: Thx for those links. My knowledge of MPL on this adoption topic is rather limited. Infact I've never heard that adoption was also one of the issues. My uncle's case is the only first hand exp'ce I have. So probably you are right. And if your friends have to jump hoops then it's too bad. I'll get back to you if I get anything more on this. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

congrats on a very bold post!
about adoption, i have written about psychological issues involved in adoption at my wordpress blog:
anybody interrsted may go through it.

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