Shaista Ambar, right, stands in front of a mosque

LUCKNOW, India (WOMENSENEWS)–Shaista Ambar professes to “know the miseries of women in her community first hand.”

In her house Ambar sits surrounded by files of cases and paper clippings of women who have come to her for help. She lives outside Lucknow, the capital of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, and home to a sizeable Muslim population.

“Muslim women are some of the worst victims of domestic violence and marital abuse,” she says, attributing that in part to clerics’ male-biased interpretation of Islamic law. “Often women are never allowed to tell their side of the story.”

In India, communities are guided by religion–rather than secular law–in personal matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

For Muslims, who are 13 percent of the population, influential guidance comes from the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. With 200-odd Sunni and Shia members and an executive committee of 41 scholars, it was set up in 1973 to arbitrate Muslim affairs and protect Islamic law. (The board does have some female members, but they have little say in decisions.)

In 2005 Ambar was so dissatisfied with the Muslim board for ignoring the problems of women that she founded an alternative, the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board.

The women’s board now has over 1,000 members, with an all-female executive committee, and is growing. Although the women are not Muslim clerics, the board’s goal is to render a more women-friendly interpretation of religious laws and customs.

Call for Reforms

Since then, she and others have been calling for reforms. The “triple talaq” tradition of divorce–where a man says three times to his wife, “I divorce thee”–is a particular concern.

“Because of widespread illiteracy, women are simply not aware of the rights that Islam has provided them with,” says Ambar. “Divorce, for instance, is a long, drawn-out process. Yet the practice of triple ‘talaq,’ where men can divorce their wives by pronouncing talaq at one go, has ruined the lives of many women who have been left by their husbands, sometimes for the flimsiest of reasons like putting extra salt in the food.”

Ambar has worked with over 20 Muslim clerics and scholars around India–all male and from both Sunni and Shiite sects–to draft a new marriage contract, which she released in March.

She’s distributing the contract by word of mouth, through the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board’s Web site and by leaving contracts at places where ordinary people can access them, such as grocery stores or tailoring shops.

The Muslim marriage contract is meant to stipulate conjugal rights and obligations as well as the approach to divorce and maintenance.

But often it contains no more than a nuptial sermon and the names and signatures of the couple. The absence of photographs and detailed contact information sometimes make it difficult for women to identify their husbands in court disputes.

Ambar’s “Sharai Nikahnamah” or “Shariat contract,” by contrast, is detailed and available in both Urdu, the language of many North Indian Muslims, and in Hindi, India’s national and most widely spoken language. It is currently being translated into English and other languages spoken in India.

Taking Control of Tradition

“There is nothing new in this contract,” Ambar told Women’s eNews. “All we have done is to explain everything in the light of the Quran rather than leave things to be arbitrarily decided by men.”

The contract mandates pictures of the couple, their addresses and telephone numbers as well as how to contact the presiding cleric and witnesses and a compulsory marriage registration with the state.

It bans dowry customs and marriages between minors–women under 18 and men under 21–and calls for compulsory payment of “meher,” or dower to the wife by the husband.

Triple talaq is banned, as is divorce communicated by text messaging, e-mail or phone, or when uttered in an inebriated state or under provocation. Divorces are made more difficult by spreading them over a three-month period. The contract also provides for maintenance payments to the wife.

“Khula,” the wife’s right to seek divorce from her husband, is allowed under specific grounds. These include the husband being involved with other women, missing for more than four years, being mentally unsound or having HIV/AIDS.

The contract includes advice to both men and women on how to make the marriage successful. For instance, wives are advised to be well turned-out, to keep the house up and to be affectionate to their husbands; husbands receive similar instruction.

Every clause is accompanied by a quote from the Quran.

Drubbed as ‘Useless Stunt’

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board and its Shia counterpart have dismissed the contract as “useless and a publicity stunt.”

Both committees had previously drawn up marriage contracts, which were dismissed by women’s groups as regressive: The All India Muslim Personal Law Board allowed triple talaq and divorce by e-mail, for example, and did not prohibit polygamy. The Shia law board’s version prohibits triple talaq but also allows “muttah,” or temporary, marriages for men and has no provisions for marital payments to women.

Jameela Nishat, director of Shaheen Women Resource and Welfare Association, an advocacy group for Muslim women in Hyderabad, criticizes the contract from another perspective. The group says the clergy’s interpretation of Islamic rules and customs for marriage and divorce has been so harmful to women that they want women to take over their interpretation, and may also push for some secular laws, such as a ban on polygamy, which is already prohibited to non-Muslim Indians.

“The contract was drawn up in consultation with the clergy and we are against that,” she said. “We want to keep the clergy out because of their rigidity.”

The contract has found some takers, however.

Two days after Ambar released it, Rukaiya Khatun, 20, and Haseeb Aimal, 25, a weaver in Lucknow, used it to certify their wedding. The bride’s sister knew Ambar and heard about the new contract through her.

Ambar also says she has heard of a married couple who re-registered under her contract, thinking it would make their marriage stronger and allow them to lead a more pious life under Islam.

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

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