Muslim Women in India Seek Secular Justice

After years of silence, Muslim women in India are loudly battling repressive religious laws. The case of one semi-literate woman, a survivor of rape, ignited their cause. Second in a series on the changing role of women in India.

Saba Ali OsmanNEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)-Frail, exhausted, illiterate Imrana is one woman among tens of thousands in the many villages of India.

Yet Imrana-in rural India women are often known only by their first names-is becoming a symbol of change and resilience for Muslim women across the country.

In June 2005 the 28-year-old mother of five from the village of Charthawal in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh complained to her husband, Nur Ilahi, a rickshaw puller, of being raped by her father-in-law, Ali Mohammed, while her husband was absent.

Even though India is a secular country, Muslim leaders insist on following Sharia, or Islamic law, in such personal affairs as marriage, divorce and inheritance. It was to this system of justice that Imrana first turned.

The village council-composed of five male village elders-ruled that her marriage be dissolved because Imrana had become “haram” (sinful) since she had entered into a relationship with her husband's father. In Indian villages that lack formal courts, these elders often act as judge and jury though they have no official jurisdiction other than the esteem that local people allow them.

The Darul ul Uloom Madrasa, an Islamic seminary in the town of Deoband with an influence among Muslims in South Asia, upheld the verdict, issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, that echoed the council's ruling.

No consideration was given to the coercive nature of Imrana's sexual relationship with Ali Mohammed.

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a national arbiter of Islamic affairs established in 1973 and stocked with 41 Islamic scholars, also endorsed this verdict.

But for all its endorsements, the verdict backfired.

Women's groups vigorously rallied around Imrana to fight the verdict and seek justice in a secular court.

In October 2006 a local, secular court sentenced Ali Mohammed to an eight-year prison term for the rape and ordered payment of 8,000 rupees (about $170) as compensation to Imrana.

He has appealed the verdict to a higher state court and women's groups around India now eagerly wait for the ruling.

Establishing New Precedent

Imrana's refusal to succumb to clerical pressure is an important precedent for Muslim women, says Saba Ali Osman, a Muslim journalist based in New Delhi. “Religion should not be made an issue,” she says. “Rape is a crime and should be punished as that.”

Constituting 13 percent of the country's population at over 140 million, India's Muslims form the world's second largest Muslim community. They have staunchly maintained their Muslim identity, resisting innovations or modernizing influences, and have lower-than-average literacy rates, which helps insulate them from progressive forces within Islam, such as online communities, and broader social changes taking place in rapidly developing India.

For women, this means one of the most restrictive cultures in the Muslim world.

In Muslim India a man can still divorce his wife by the simple expedient of repeating “Talaq” three times, while a woman has no recourse.

Polygamy is legal, along with a low marriage age-at attainment of puberty-for girls.

Many of these practices have been banned or reformed in progressive Muslim majority countries such as Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco.

Case Sends Shock Waves

But Imrana's case sent shock waves through the community.

After the village council verdict and fatwa ordering Imrana's divorce, the All India Muslim Women's Personal Law Board-formed by female activists in 2005 in Lucknow, a city with a strong Muslim heritage and sizeable Muslim community-immediately rejected it and warned that it would invoke the country's secular penal code against those who had issued it.

Subhashini Ali, president of the All India Democratic Women's Association, affiliated with the Communist Party of India, recruited about 1,500 women, mostly Muslims, to swarm around Ali Mohammed's house in June 2005 to protest both the crime and the fatwa.

“This was the very first women's demonstration in this village,” she told Women's eNews. “We made it clear that we demand humanitarian laws rather than religious ones.”

The women marched to the district court, demanding that justice be meted out. Consequently, the local police soon arrested Imrana's father-in-law and charged him with the criminal offense of rape.

The protestors also demanded that local Sharia courts be dismantled.

Two nongovernmental groups in Uttar Pradesh that assist Muslim women, Astitva and Disha, helped Imrana to lodge a case with the police and to undergo a medical test to prove rape.

“It was not easy to convince a semi-literate woman to take such steps,” says Astitva's director, Rehana Adib, who personally accompanied Imrana to the police and the doctor. “But Imrana displayed enormous courage.”

Steady Stream of Protests

Since the time that Imrana's case became public in 2005, women's groups across the country have organized a steady stream of protests, demonstrations and petitions in solidarity with her and against fatwas in general.

Under that pressure the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which advocates for greater rights for Muslim women, began distancing itself from the ruling of the Sharia court and the fatwa-issuing Deoband seminary. The group stopped issuing media statements and has not commented on women's activism. The Deobold seminary also denied that the fatwa was related to Imrana's case, saying that it was an independent act of two clerics, who were later dismissed, and was not an official opinion.

And this past January Imrana's case helped spur the formation of the Indian Muslim Women's Movement, a national movement of female Muslim activists spread out over 13 states in India with 2,000 registered members.

But Muslim female activists have also been hurt.

Imrana, Adib and other activists have been receiving death threats from members of the Muslim clergy and community in the state. A week after Imrana first filed charges with the police about 70 Muslim clerics led a protest march against her and her supporters, alleging that their actions were un-Islamic.

For reasons of safety, Adib and others have for the past year donned the burka whenever they leave home.

Meanwhile, the chair of the Sharia court that issued the fatwa, Maulana Imran, maintained that Nur Ilahi should divorce his wife, but the couple has ignored the ruling.

Imrana and her husband moved into her mother's home in another village, Kokrajhar. The All India Democratic Women's Association has bought the couple a small plot of land and they are trying to construct a house on it.

Aditi Bhaduri is a gender consultant and a journalist based in India.

For more information:

All India Muslim Personal Law Board:

All-India Muslim Women Personal Law Board to Release Their Own Nikahnama:

Darul Uloom-Deoband:

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