Against all odds

RISING MINORITY

Against all odds

Being a qazi (Muslim priest) means much more to Safia Akhtar than just having the power to solemnise a nikah (marriage). “As a qazi, I want to be a true counsellor to the women of my community and not only help them resolve issues concerning their rights but also ensure that they get justice.

I know there will be hurdles to overcome; but whatever I do is going to be as per the holy Quran, so I am not worried,” she says. Safia, who hails from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, is all set to lend a new meaning to the role a qazi plays in the life of Muslim women.

She is one of the 30 Muslim women who have embarked on the journey to become qazis, having received training from Darun Uloom Niswaan (DUN), a centre for Islamic learning and theology, formed by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA). This first batch of women qazis, who hail from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha, have been given basic grounding in Quranic injunctions pertaining to marriage and family, personal laws in Muslim countries, Constitution of India, and basics of Indian and global jurisprudence pertaining to gender justice and equality.

So far, male qazis have been the norm, barring a few exceptions like Shabana Ara Begum of West Bengal who was the first female qazi in the country, having inherited the position from her father. Nonetheless, the BMMA has already made the move to change this reality by providing comprehensive training to select women. Incidentally, a recently-concluded training programme in Jaipur was the first in the series of sessions to be held all year long that encompassed, among other things, learnings on theology as well as the history and values of Islam.

Internal resistance

Naturally, this effort has drawn a variety of strong reactions across different quarters and sparked heated debates within the community. With much dissent to the decision coming from within the community, the obvious question that comes to mind is: why is there a need for women qazis in the first place? Zakia Soman, co-founder of BMMA and a trustee of the DUN, says, “A qazi plays an important role in our society.

S/he solemnises marriages and also validates divorce. In our last 10 years of work across different states, the BMMA has observed that owing to a general ignorance of the Quranic injunctions, there is widespread practice of the regressive triple talaq and halala, despite the fact that there is no Quranic sanction to them. This is a serious issue as it has direct impact on a woman’s life. We felt that there is an urgent need for a brigade of sensitive and properly informed female qazis who can stand up for women.”

Marriage in Islam is a social contract and the nikahnama is a very significant document. But traditionally, it doesn’t consist of anything beyond names, signature and basic details. “So, in the absence of any terms of agreement mentioned in the nikahnama, the rights and entitlements of women are often ignored or violated. Generally, after the triple talaq is pronounced, a woman is ousted from her home, often with the children without any compensation whatsoever for their upkeep or education.

Many a time, if a man conceals a previous marriage then the wife cannot do anything since there are no comprehensive details mentioned in the nikahnaama. Even meher (a mandatory payment made by the groom or his father to the bride at the time of marriage that legally becomes her property), the essential right of a Muslim woman, is often diluted,” adds Zakia.

Khatun Sheikh, convenor, BMMA, elaborates, “People seek the services of a qazi for marriage as well as divorce. There are cases where both husband and wife want to reunite after a dispute, but then halala (the practice under which a woman has to be with another man before she can reunite with her former husband) comes in the way. We believe that if there are women qazis, then there is a greater chance of women getting justice. Therefore, whether the society accepts it or not, our endeavour is to take the initiative forward.”

Terming these discriminatory and humiliating practices as “un-Islamic” the BMMA and DUN believe that training more and more women to be qazis is, in fact, the need of the hour. Besides, there is no bar on women qazis as per the Quran. “A lot of legal problems faced by Muslim women will be prevented if the qazi plays his/her role with responsibility. Our attempt is to understand religion with a feminist perspective and create awareness among women so that they speak the language of justice and development,” shares Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of BMMA and a trustee at the DUN.

Women qazis trained by the DUN hope to ensure that underage marriages do not
happen, that a man is not able to undertake a second marriage while his first wife is still around, and that the proof of residence of a man and his source of income are ascertained before he enters a marriage contract, apart from guaranteeing that a bride’s meher amount is given to her at the time of nikah and that both the parties are entering the marriage alliance out of their free will and not by force or fraud. These progressive measures, which even a male qazi can take, are mostly overlooked, leading to serious problems in case of a marital discord.

Of course, the more traditional members of the community are not quite pleased with the changes being brought in. Anwar Shah, former secretary of Jama Masjid in Jaipur and director of the Al-Jamia-tul-Aaliyah, feels, “A mere week or 10 days’ training is highly inadequate to make someone a qazi or acquire in-depth knowledge of the holy Quran or Hadis or Islam. Moreover, if someone really wishes to become a true legal expert, one must acquire a proper degree of Darul-kaza from the Amarate Sharia in Bihar. In any case, earlier the qazi used to be the seat of justice but this new role as a justice provider is really not applicable in a democratic country like India where we have a judicial system.”

Needless to say, there are many critics and naysayers that the women qazi-in-training are going to face in the days to come. Still, they are ready to meet the challenges because they want to become a true friend, philosopher and guide for the women of their community.


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