The passage of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019, criminalising Triple Talaq, is significant in two ways. It replaces the 1986 Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, of Rajiv Gandhi government vintage—a law that overturned the path-breaking Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case. Secondly, it makes talaq-e-biddat a punishable offence, not just illegal or unconstitutional. Islam treats marriage or nikah as a social contract, where the woman’s concurrence is an integral part of the process.
Logically, therefore, triple talaq should have long been put out of practice as a patriarchal anomaly, an aberration in terms of the basic tenets of the religion, as it has been in many Islamic nations. In India, however, reform in personal law is fraught with political implications, across religions. Women’s organisations had to struggle for decades before the Supreme Court revisited the issue and deemed instant talaq—a unilateral pronouncement by the husband— as unconstitutional.
The current Bill goes a step ahead to make it a criminal act, attracting a three-year jail term, maintenance and fine. The opposition, while accepting the illegality of triple talaq, feels criminilisation can have unpredictable results, victimising even the woman. Public response has been divided. The supporters, including women who have suffered the consequences of talaq-e-biddat, have welcomed the stringent provisions, but not all rights activists, Muslim leaders or opposition figures agree.
They feel the legislation is biased against Muslim men. Why men who choose to victimise the women they marry need kid-glove treatment is not readily apparent. But there is a sense of punitive surplus here, not the best perceptual outcome in fraught political times—especially if it actually puts the Muslim women in double disadvantage. A bad law can indeed damage a political party, as the preceding law did to the Congress, beginning with that unpardonable U-turn on Shah Bano.