The controversy over the rape of a woman by her father-in-law has raised many pertinent issues. After the horrendous incident, the woman, a mother of five children, was told to consider her husband as her son by the local village council of elders. The initial resistance of this edict by the woman and her husband soon gave way to immense pressure put on them by the fatwa of Dar al Uloom, Deoband, which gave very nearly the same verdict, as that of the village council. It stipulated that the women in question could no longer live with her husband, since she ‘had sex’ with her own father-in-law.
The learned Mufti of Deoband, despite his scholarship, has punished a woman for no fault of hers. Doesn’t he know that remarriage of women in India is still not a norm, be it among Hindus or Muslims? One might ask how such a callous fatwa has been issued. After all, it is the same people who tell us that women and men are the same in Islam. Why then, we see that in cases such as these, it is only women who are at the receiving end?
The case of this woman from Uttar Pradesh is not unique, neither the first. Couple of years ago, a woman in Nigeria complained that she had been raped. The man denied the charge and under the Islamic requirement the woman could not produce witnesses. The end was that she was charged with adultery. The case of Amina Lawal which became internationally known was similarly the result of a ‘blame the victim’ mentality. The present case in India should be seen in this light and not as some isolated incident.
More and more it is becoming clearer that Sharia laws do not give adequate protection to women. It is not without reason therefore that Muslim women’s group are demanding changes in some of the Sharia laws. Their mistrust of Sharia laws only gets strong when we see that while the Dar al Uloom categorically wants the separation of the women in question from her husband, it suggests that the rapist father in law should be tried under the Indian penal code. So while women are to be covered under Personal Law, the men are free to enjoy the reformed secular law. The ‘islamicity’ of Indian Muslim men is therefore based on the degree to which they have control over their women.
The reaction by political parties to this case has shamefully been on predictable lines. The only ones who are raising this issue are the women’s group like AIDWA and All India Women’s Personal Law Board. The male dominated AIMPLB has already acquiesced in to the fatwa of Deoband, making it ever clearer that it is not the sole representative of Muslims in India. The most disgraceful so far has been Mulayam Singh Yadav who has welcomed the Deoband fatwa and has refused to entertain any other opinion than the one from Deoband. The Congress has similarly distanced itself from the issue. Its leader in Uttar Pradesh Salman Khurshid stated that the issue was an ‘individual one’ which should be dealt in accordance with the Shariat. After all what can one expect from a party, whose President had recently spoken from the platform of Jamiat ul-‘Ulama-I Hind, the apex body of the Deobandi Ulama in India?
Mainstream political parties have so far reinforced the impression that the Muslims in India are led by the Maulvis and madrasas, an impression which simplifies the complex character of the Muslims in India. However, in considering the Ulama as guardians of Muslim community in India, they have served to take the Muslims backwards and have throttled alternative progressive voices from within the community.
Muslims need to realize that it is only they who can change the way the community is looked upon by others. There is a need to change outmoded laws since they were drafted many hundred years ago and do not reflect the contemporary reality. So far the Muslims have left their religious affairs in the hands of Ulama. Time and again, they have reminded us that they are not willing to change. After all Personal Laws have been reformed in Pakistan, Malaysia and other Muslim countries and there is no reason why it cannot be done in India. Assigning the task to the Ulama has not brought desired changes. It is time perhaps that ordinary Muslims start taking more interest in the religious affairs of the community and not leave everything to the Ulama.
Arshad Alam is International Ford Fellow, Department of Muslim Religious and Cultural History, University of Erfurt, Germany.