The year is 1940. Fatima, a Muslim, and Sangeetha, a Hindu, are close friends. They get married to men of their communities. As per custom, Sangeetha’s groom is paid a dowry, while Fatima’s parents are paid a ‘mehr’ by her groom. Both Sangeetha and Fatima have four brothers each. After a few years, Fatima’s parents pass away. Fatima gets one-ninth of the share and the eight-ninth of the share is divided between her brothers. Sangeetha’s parents pass away soon. She too has four brothers. She gets no share at all. All conditions being similar, Sangeetha is worse off as a woman. Of course, it is unfair that Fatima gets only half of what each of her brothers got. But she is still better than Sangeetha who got nothing.
Had Fatima become a widow in 1940s, she would have still got one-fourth of her husband’s right, had she not got any children. She could have remarried soon. She would have got one-eighth if she had children. Had Sangeetha become a widow in 1940s, she would have got nothing of her deceased husband’s property and most probably would have ended up as a widow in Vrindavan or Varanasi or eked out a living as a dependent of her brothers.
If Sangeetha came to know that her husband already had a wife when he married her, she had no right on his property as everything went to the first wife. She would have just been her husband’s mistress. In a similar situation, Fatima’s marriage was a valid one. She had the right to divorce, which her friend Sangeetha could never even dream of in 1940s. In short, a Muslim woman was better off as far as her rights were concerned, thanks to the Shariat law (codified under the Muslim Personal Law, 1937).
The Shariat law is not a homogenous law and is interpreted differently in different Muslim countries. Even in India, different communities practice it differently. Still, it provided protection for a Muslim woman than her Hindu counterpart who was bound by the ancient Hindu shastras or the twisted medieval interpretations of the same by the Hindu pundits.
Years pass by. Fatima has a daughter and four sons. Sangeetha has a daughter and a son. Fatima marries off her daughter by paying a dowry now. ‘Mehr’ is just a token while dowry has become mainstream. Fatima’s husband dies soon after her daughter’s marriage. Fatima still gets one-eighth property. Sangeetha also marries off her daughter by paying a dowry, which is now illegal. Her husband dies soon. Sangeetha now has equal share in her deceased husband’s property as do her son and daughter. Even if Sangeetha remarries, her right to her deceased husband’s property is intact. Had she divorced, she had the right to claim maintenance from her husband. Her daughter and son will have equal shares. She is no longer dependent on her husband’s relatives in the event of widowhood.
If she found out that her husband had another wife, she could file civil and criminal proceedings against him. She could demand alimony. Meanwhile, Fatima’s condition is standing where it was in 1940s. She still has only one-eighth right in her husband’s property. If there are no children, the rest of the property would go to the male members of her husband’s family.
If she has only a daughter, after her share of one-eighth and only half of what is left would go to her daughter and the rest of her husband’s property would go to the male members of her husband’s family. To make matters worse, Fatima could do nothing if her husband took two more wives. Her husband could divorce her easily while Sangeetha’s husband would have to convince the civil court about the divorce.
The examples are simplified ones to understand the complex laws. The Muslim woman had far superior rights as per the Muslim Personal Law of 1937 when compared to a Hindu woman. However, the condition of the Hindu women took a giant leap towards equality and modernity after the passage of a set of laws in 1955-56, which are now known as Hindu Code Bills.
The parliamentary debates on the bills, which raged for a decade, are a fascinating read. The bills were passed against stiff opposition by the Hindu population. Massive propaganda was unleashed against Jawaharlal Nehru and his Cabinet. B R Ambedkar had modified the B N Rau committee draft of 1941 and had to face allegations that he was trying to destroy the Hindu religion.
The shastras are sacrosanct, and mere humans cannot change what is decided by the gods, cried the conservative pundits. Like any other religion, they were able to muster the support of most Hindu women to fight against the laws. The now much-maligned Nehru, who is getting blamed for everything 55 years after his death, took a bold stand.
Campaigning for 1951-52 elections, he made this a part of the manifesto. He got the laws passed in his term after his decisive victory. But he didn’t show the same level of guts to modify Muslim personal law. That would be the greatest favour he did to the Hindu women and the great disservice he did to the Muslim women.
The results are for everyone to see. The debate for Uniform Civil Code should not be just about talaqs, triple or otherwise. The conservative among the Muslims are going to be as vociferous as their Hindu counterparts were in 1950s, when the Uniform Civil Code Bills, if at all, will be presented. There will be protests. Hinduism survived and prospered after the Hindu Code Bills. The same would be true about other religions too. A few priests and male chauvinists would lose some power, which would be a good thing to happen. If we have a leader of Nehru’s stature now, Uniform Civil Code will not be far away. email@example.com