New Delhi, (WFS) - "How long are you going to debate about the legal rights of women on issues regarding triple talak, family planning, polygamy and nikahnama (marriage contract)?" asked a visibly emotional Hasnat. Hasnat, former principal of a degree college in Bangalore, was speaking at a recent conference here on 'Socio-economic Issues and Islamic Rights of Muslim Women' held at Jamia Hamdard (JH), a south Delhi-based university. "You have confused us enough with various interpretations of Koran. We can all read the Holy Book and interpret it the way we want to. We do not want you there to decide for us," she told the members of the All India Muslim Law Board present at the conference. Hasnat voiced the feelings of many other Muslim women activists, who often cheered and clapped when she spoke.

The two-day conference, organised by the Centre for Studies on Indian Muslims, Department of Islamic Studies at JH and the International Foundation for Election Systems, aimed to initiate a dialogue between the Board members, Muslim scholars and women's groups. The meet, the first of its kind, also aimed to help the Ulema, a body of Muslim scholars recognised as experts on Islamic law, and the Board to hold discussions not only around 'currently debated issues of a model nikahnama and triple talak' but also women's empowerment, health, education and the rights of victims of communal violence.

Women from several states had collected to express their anger and frustration against the Board and its refusal to look at their specific problems. "Even though there are women members on the Board, they do not reflect the diversity of Muslim women's voices within the community. A need was felt to get other inputs," said Dr Yoginder Sikand, Head of the Department of Islamic Studies, New Delhi. He added: "The women may not be recognised as trained Ulema but they are well-versed in Islamic jurisprudence and Koranic verses. We need to listen to them as well."

Sikand felt the media had a tendency to either sensationalise news about the Muslim community or had a very narrow perspective about the community's problems. Of course, Sikand said, part of the problem lay with the community itself - it continues to talk about women's issues only in the context of Islam, where religion acquires a dominant position. One of the women's activists, formerly with the Muslim Women's Forum, said: "It's time the Board and the Ulema wake up to the needs of the community. We do not seem to be discussing important issues like empowerment of the community, socio-economic status of Muslim women, their plight during and after riots. We simply keep on focusing on legal reforms and have not moved an inch on other matters."

At the conference, while the Board members remained orthodox and conformist in their views, the women, from diverse backgrounds, articulated new and unconventional ideas. Most said that Muslim women's 'marginalisation' was not being addressed by the Board. They felt their marginalisation was largely due to the patriarchal interpretations of the Shariat.

Part of the problem lies with the Muslim community itself - it continues to talk about women's issues only in the context of Islam, where religion acquires a dominant position.
Defending their position, the Board members said that they were trying to work at reforms but were restricted by the Shariat. Haseena Hashia, a Board member, said, "Not only do we have members representing different schools of Islamic thought but we also have to consider the sentiments of different Ulemas and Imams (leaders of Shiite Muslims). We have to respect their views, strike a balance and make space within the accepted framework."

Shareefa Khanum, an activist from Tamilnadu, along with Jameela Nishat of NGO Shaheen (from Andhra Pradesh), denounced the triple talak and urged the Board to take concrete steps at the forthcoming model nikahnama meeting in Calicut. Khanum earned the wrath of the Ulemas early this year (2004) when she initiated an all-women Jammat (gathering) which announced its plans to build a mosque of its own.

Khanum has also been campaigning against the recent spate of divorces via email and on the telephone. "Although dowry is 'un-Islamic', it is a widespread practice among Muslims as well. Why is it that the Ulema and our male leaders conveniently overlook this practice, while doing next to nothing for the plight of divorced women?" asked Khanum. Jameela raised the issue of `contract' marriages and demanded why the Board was a silent party to such marriages.

The women challenged the Board for its lack of courage to take strong decisions. "If the Board recognises the practice of triple talak in one sitting as a reprehensible innovation, then how can it (triple talak) be considered part of the Shariat? How can the Shariat include or sanctify reprehensible innovations? " argued a woman activist from Uttar Pradesh. "Much as I respect the Imams of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, I don't regard them as infallible. They were products of their times, and now times have changed. This demands that we reflect on the Koran and Prophetic traditions and develop new ways of understanding our laws," she insisted.

Encouraged by the prevailing mood, many women talked about other contentious issues like polygamy and birth control. "A woman should be given the right to add a clause in the nikahnama that her husband would not be allowed to marry another woman while he is married to her," insisted one activist. "If Islam has so many rights for women, then why these rights are not given?" questioned Khanum. In fact, bypassing the Board and the Ulema, Khanum has translated, from Arabic to Tamil, specific portions of the Koran that directly deal with women's rights and distributed the material to women in several TN villages. "The Koran is an open book; women should interpret it themselves. This is what Islam demands - that all believers, men and women, should read and understand it."

The Board, which has 201 members, includes 25 women members and only Naseem Iqtidar Ali (from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh) is on the executive committee. "The Board has no infrastructure or resources. It was constituted in 1972 to provide guidelines and protect the Shariat," explained Ali. She felt the Board should not be expected to resolve individual cases of dowry, divorce or polygamy. Only when Shariat laws are being challenged, as in the Shah Bano case, should the Board play a pivotal role. Otherwise, the Board is limited in its function, she said.

"The truth is that it is limited in its vision as well," countered one of the women activists.