In the so-called ‘Muslim’ basti that lines the busy Prince Anwar Shah road in Kolkata, the lines between Hindu and Muslim identities are blurred. “Most women you find here are either Hindus who’ve married Muslims or vice versa,” said a woman when I asked her where I could find some Muslim women to talk to on the issue of triple talaq.
The second house, right as we enter the alley, belonged to 24-year-old Fatima Bibi. The TV ran constantly in her one-room shanty, but news channels weren’t the preferred choice of entertainment. So, while she’s heard of the entire brouhaha around instant triple talaq, Fatima claimed she did not know the finer details of the practice barred by the Supreme Court.
If the courts have declared instant triple talaq illegal then that’s great. But talaq isn’t something that I would say is an issue. I’ve never seen a talaq in my life. What politicians should focus on instead is granting equality for us Muslims. I got a very good job as a salesgirl a few days back. There was no one to look after my two-year-old son, so I approached a local creche to keep him while I’d be at work. The owner of the creche told me that he wouldn’t keep a Muslim boy because there’s a mandir in the premises. I couldn’t afford any other place, so I had to give up on my dream job. You tell me, is this fair?
The houses surrounding Fatima’s were rented by her sisters-in-law, 34-year-old Sabia and 60-year-old Noor Jahan. The three women represent three generations of Muslim thought – liberal, slightly conservative, and very conservative.
Like Fatima, Sabia too has faced discrimination on religious grounds. She has been rejected by many “Bangali” – a term Bengali Muslims use to refer Hindu Bengalis in the state – households when she sought work as domestic help.
The eldest of the trio, Noor Jahan Begum, was a little more conservative in her thought. “Why the headache around talaq all of a sudden? They should just let it be. Our sons are without jobs. Why does no one talk about that? Muslims care about the same things that Hindus do, but the powers that be assume that we can be won over by talking about these issues,” she told The Quint.
Neither of the three had ever heard of Ishrat Jahan, the triple talaq petitioner who recently joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). When asked about their political affiliations, they said they vote for whoever “the locality is talking about.”
At the moment, it is the Trinamool Congress.
A few lanes down, in a galli hidden under sagging electric cables, lived 34-year-old Samia Bibi, who, unlike the other three women, knew her current affairs and enjoyed being politically informed. “I keep the right company, hence I can talk about any topic,” she laughed.
Though her family is very educated, she was married off at the age of 17 because the potential groom was an engineer. After marriage, to her surprise, she found out that her husband only had a diploma and not a degree. Now, she gives tuitions to schoolchildren and her husband helps her. She called out the triple talaq debate for what it was – “an appeasement tool.”
Fifty metres down the road from Samia’s home, I met Runa Mufti, who was washing her utensils at the locality’s municipal tap – the only source of clean water in the settlement. She’s a Hindu woman who married a Muslim. “My husband’s house is right opposite my parent’s house,” she said. “I fell in love with my neighbour!”
Also Read: The Absurdity of Criminalising Triple Talaq
When asked who she’ll vote for – those raising the triple talaq issue or those working on other issues at the ground level, pat came Runa’s answer. “Of course, the latter. Muslims don’t vote on religious grounds anymore. Those days are gone. Give us clean water and cheaper rations and we are satisfied. Talaq or no talaq.”
About nine kilometres away from this settlement, the slums of Muslim-populated Topsia are a lot more congested. A barren field at the beginning of the slum is where women come to get some fresh air, dry their clothes, or just catch up with each other. It is here that I met 30-year-old Rehmani Bibi and 70-year-old Noori Begum.
I asked Rehmani if she’d heard about the triple talaq debate. Yes, she said faintly. “Who’s bothered about triple talaq now? Of course, it’s a great move but in my humble opinion, I’d have to say that I don’t know of a single family who was personally affected by it.”
Rehmani never heard of Ishrat Jahan. When I informed her that she was the triple talaq petitioner who had joined the BJP, she immediately formed an opinion. “Neta banna tha. It’s all for publicity. It’s not like these are the problems of every Muslim woman. I, for example, have better things to worry about,” she said.
“My daughter is in class 5 and I wanted to get her admitted into an English-medium school. The schools I approached asked for hefty donations starting from Rs 10,000. We are poor. We can’t afford it. If she doesn’t learn English, how will she ever get a job? This is putting her behind everyone else even before she steps into the real world,” she added.
Noori Begum, on the other hand, didn’t understand why the government had to meddle in matters of Allah and the Rasool (Prophet).
No matter what the court or government says, we will follow what is prescribed by the Sharia. How can the government talk about this when they don’t even understand the concept of triple talaq? Moreover, I can’t believe that this is how they’re looking to do good for us after putting us through the pain of demonetisation. I went to the bank once, stood in line for six hours and never had the courage to go back again. First you take away all our money, and then play with our religious beliefs. This is not done.
While the people in urban settlements were speaking about BJP’s stance on the Triple Talaq Bill, the induction of Ishrat Jahan into the party, and whether the saffron party managed to sway the sentiments of Muslim women, in rural Bengal, women seemed more uneasy to talk about the issue.
I travelled to Jambuni, a Muslim settlement in the Birbhum district, where most women thought it was “probably” a good decision but did not seem too celebratory about it.
Built around a madrasa, most of the settlements in Jambuni are made with clay and have thatched roofs. Unlike in Kolkata, women here were reluctant to be photographed. The reason most of them gave was fear of being rebuked by their husbands, who would be offended if they found out that they were speaking to the media about an issue like talaq. All of them were oblivious to the Supreme Court’s judgment, let alone knowing who Ishrat Jahan is.
Two women that I met, aged 28 and 30, told me that they were happy to hear that teen-talaq was done away with. But, they too reiterated that talaq was never a reality for them. “It doesn’t matter to us, we haven’t been following this, and no, we will not vote for someone purely on the basis of their stance on this issue,” one of the women said.
Eighteen-year-old Morjina Bibi overheard our conversation and joined in. A shy woman, she was reluctant to open up at first. “My husband will ask me why I spoke about this issue,” she said. She got married two years ago and has only studied till class 7.
Regina Bibi, a home-maker, whose husband runs a toto, the local name for an e-rickshaw, echoed Morjina’s sentiments. She never attended school and her two children were being educated at the madrasa. “I just want jobs for my children when they grow up. To be honest, I don’t know if they’ll get a job once they complete their education. My biggest fear is that they’ll have to take up their father’s profession,” she said.
I didn’t know about the triple talaq judgment till you told me. Of course, it is great. But as a Muslim woman, that would not be my first demand. I wish there were more colleges in this part of the state. Children either have to go all the way to Kolkata or study at Visva Bharati, which is very difficult to get into. I wish, as someone with limited means, that these basic facilities are first taken care of. The wishes of the Hindus and Muslims are the same. We have the same blood running through our veins. If there’s indeed politics being played over this, then it should stop.
As I went deeper into the settlement, the few concrete houses gave way to a completely rural landscape. As I crossed one of the huts, which was surrounded by goats and chickens, Sanjida Begum, 35, and Chobi Bibi, 34 – both sisters-in-law – invited me into their barely-there courtyard. “Please sit. We are not townsfolk like you. Our guests matter to us so it will be impolite if you stand and talk,” they said.
When asked if they agree with the triple talaq judgment, they said that it gives more power to the women. However, they contended that that this may not necessarily be the best thing. “When we got married, there was a perception that the husband is the ‘boss’ of the household. The women are supposed to be his puppets – eating, sleeping, walking and talking at his will. There was always a fear that if the wives misbehave then the husband will get mad and say talaq thrice,” said Sanjida.
“But just because the wife now has power, it also means that she can do whatever she wants. That can be problematic. There are so many types of people in this world, what if they exploit their husbands?” argued Chobi.
When asked if they’d rather vote for the BJP or the Trinamool Congress in the next election, they looked around. An onlooker said, “Aaj kal toh TMC hi chalta hai (these days, it’s just the TMC),” and the women nodded. “I think the best thing to do on voting day is to just stay at home,” Chobi quipped.
“Making a decision is too much of a mental exercise.”
As night fell, our last stop in Jambuni was a house that shared its wall with the madrasa. The lady of the house, Samshuda Begum, was a vociferous critic of the BJP, as were all the male members of her family.
“Who are these people who’re making laws without even understanding triple talaq?” she asked, going on to explain how each utterance of talaq was an opportunity being given to the woman to “improve” herself. “No one says talaq-talaq-talaq at once. The woman is given time, months in fact, after each talaq is said, to improve her shortcomings. How can they then say that Islam is being unfair to women?” she said.
The mandir-masjid issue seems to have really affected them. “No matter what they say about talaq, the BJP can never get Muslim votes with slogans like ‘mandir yahin banayenge,’” said her brother, Sadiqullah Khan. “They have ruined all our institutions.”
While their reasons were different, all the women we spoke to seemed to think that triple talaq could never be what decides their vote. Yes, triple talaq is important. Yes, Ishrat Jahan may have been a big catch for the BJP. But what resonance does any of it have on the ground for the party? None, if these women are to be believed.
The first test for the party, though, will be the upcoming panchayat polls in 2018.