Mumtaz Sheikh, 34, lives in Mumbra, a Muslim pocket situated around 30 kilometres from Mumbai. She was divorced by her husband about nine years ago but she does not receive a paisa in terms of maintenance from her former spouse although she supports their two children.
Mumtaz’s story is not an isolated one in Mumbra. Divorce here has become a marker that further ostracises and marginalises already poor women, especially those who lack an education or the means to a livelihood. “Divorce, for most women in the community is a matter of stigma. People always blame the woman. This, when, ironically, it is the man who exercises the right to triple talaq,” says Kauser Ansari, a counsellor with Awaaz-e-Niswan, an organisation that works with Muslim women in Mumbai and in Mumbra.
What makes the situation worse is the fact that people consider it ‘haraam’ (sinful) to demand money from the ex-husband, with whom they no longer share a relation. Activists say that it is this thinking that prevents women from openly demanding maintenance from their former husbands.
Mumtaz reveals that she had actually tried to demand maintenance, but did not succeed. She now works hard, doing several odd jobs every day, to support herself and her two children.
Mumbra gained the notoriety of being a Muslim ghetto after the Hindu-Muslim riots that tore through Mumbai in 1992-93. It’s predominantly the Muslim population that suffers from a lack of development and poor service delivery. CAFYA, a project to monitor the Sachar Committee recommendations and the status of Muslim women was undertaken by five organisations in Mumbai. They were CEHAT, Akshara, FAOW-Forum Against
Oppression of Women, YUVA and Awaaz-e-Niswan (making up the acronym CAFYA). The survey only confirmed the findings of the Sachar Committee report, showing that cultural practices of the Muslim community in terms of ‘purdah’, polygamy and divorce have actually affected single or divorced women’s access to services from the state.
Muslim women cannot claim maintenance under Section 125 of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). They became entitled to maintenance in conditions specified by the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. According to this law, women can demand for maintenance only during the ‘iddat’ period - the three months after the divorce. If the husband is unable to pay the amount, the onus of maintenance shifts to the woman’s family or the Waqf Board.
Says Veena Gowda, a women’s rights lawyer, “After the Shah Bano case, there have been many judgments, which have recognised a Muslim woman’s right to maintenance. But, as happens in other religious communities too, a lot of men end up not paying any maintenance.”
The women then are left with little resource, since most are extremely reluctant to go to court. With little family support, they find the whole experience of accessing justice extremely overwhelming. Kausar Ansari, a counsellor at Awaaz-e-Niswan, adds that most of the women that she works with have not demanded any support from the Waqf board, “We had approached the Waqf board asking for details of maintenance for women belonging to the poorer sections of society. However, it has been unable to help us.”
According to the Rajinder Sachar Report, only 25 per cent of Muslim women are part of the workforce. In Mumbra, the situation is no different. After their divorce, they find themselves in a labyrinth, with no income and little family support. The lack of a ration card - that could help in keeping household expenses lower - further compounds their problems.
Getting a ration card for a single or divorced woman is an extremely tough task. A public hearing organised by Awaaz-e-Niswaan, revealed very clearly that among the major requirements listed by the women, ration cards figured very prominently. Yet, most do not have them. The study by CAFYA showed that more than 70 per cent of the women they had interviewed did not possess a ration card.
In 2010, Awaaz-e-Niswan had embarked on an initiative to get ration cards for about 45 women in Mumbra. They first initiated a public hearing in the area and mobilised the women in a bid to put pressure on the authorities. It took them two long years to get ration cards for about 30 women. As for the other 15, they continue to wait. None of them, incidentally, have Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards.
Mumtaz explains why she does not have a ration card, “I don’t have a house of my own and most house owners refuse to provide a No Objection Certificate (NOC), which is needed for a ration card.”
The refusal on the part of house owners to give this NOC is common throughout Mumbai. This is because they fear that the ration card will be used for gaining ownership over the house, despite the fact that a Bombay High Court’s order specifically states that a ration card should only be used to obtain food items. A temporary ration card does not look different from a ration card that is obtained against one’s own house and this has led to the reported misuse of the card.
Mumtaz earns about Rs 8,000 per month of which Rs 4,000 is spent on rent alone. According to Ansari, most families remove the names of their daughters the moment they are married. “The husband’s family does not show the same diligence in adding their daughter-in-law’s name to their ration card. So if divorce should happen, the woman is left stranded.”
Academics, who have studied the status of Muslim women, feel that the increasing ghettoisation and alienation of the Muslim community has resulted in the further marginalisation of the women. Observes Haseena Khan, researcher and women's rights activist, “Women are depending more and more on their community for their sustenance. This is not a particularly favourable trend, given the high levels of discrimination that already exist.”