India’s Women — Muslim or Hindu — Need To Make & Manage Own Money
India criminalised triple talaq but the root cause of women’s vulnerability is lack of financial independence.
Through my growing up years, I had no exposure to feminist thought or literature. The closest that I came across ‘women issues’ was through magazines like Femina, Women’s Era and, in later years, Savvy, that my mother subscribed to from time to time. They fired up women’s aspirations alright, but in the realm of appearance, not imagination. Worse, they not only reinforced the concept of ‘male gaze’, they trained the women to look at themselves the way their men saw them. Safe to say, not much evolution of thought happened here.
Despite this absence of exposure, one idea became integral to my being the moment I stepped into adolescence—financial independence. It was not that I was short of money--in fact, my father gifted me a dependent’s credit card when I turned 13—but I was conscious of the burden of accountability that came with spending someone’s else money. In addition to accountability for one’s indulgences, there was also a need to win approval for one’s choices. Because, after all, it was not your own money!
Women’s Fate Sealed by Financial Dependence on Others
Establishing the connection between financial independence and empowerment was the first epiphany I had while still in my teens. A young traumatised woman had returned to her parents’ house in our neighbourhood with her two children. Her physically abusive husband had apparently crossed the limits of her endurance. Many neighbourhood women, including my mother, collected at her parents’ house for consolation and consultation.
The family-in-law was also invited to resolve the matter. The man came with his sister-in-law (older brother’s wife). In the course of the argument, he threatened to take away his infant son, leaving the wife and the young daughter with her parents. The woman’s family panicked. Eventually, she was persuaded to go back to her marital house, when it was clearly not a home.
More than what the ‘world would say’, her fate was sealed by her total financial dependence on others, her parents, husband and, in the case of separation, eventually her brothers.
Women Victims Have No Religion
I am conscious of the fact that financial independence does not automatically translate into emotional and social empowerment. Even I am frequently overcome by the desire of pleasing my loved ones at whatever cost, and suffer from guilt when I am unable to do so. But everyone involved knows that my desire stems from love and not helplessness. That even when I put their interests before mine, I do it from the position of empowerment and not material dependence.
It may sound simplistic, but I am convinced that the first step for women to claim agency over their lives and bodies is financial security. And nothing gives more security than one’s ability to earn one’s own money.
It gives one courage to stand up to injustice, to resist abuse, to seek life independent of men or simply to exercise one’s choices, even if on a whim.
Sure, some may still remain helpless despite financial independence, but those are exceptional cases.
Despite the universality of this fact, in the last few years, as politics dabbled into issues of women empowerment, a public perception was created that there were issues specific to Muslim women. Triple talaq was held up an exhibit to make the point of women victimisation, as if victimisation comes in the shades of faith. However, to get to the root of victimisation, it is important to put both marriage and divorce among Muslims in the correct perspective.
Theory and Practice of Marriage Contract in Islam
As is well known, marriage in Islam is a contract. Execution of this contract requires the husband to pay bride money or mehr to his wife, either in cash or immovable asset. This amount depends upon the financial solvency of the man. Richer the man, higher the mehr. This amount/ asset should be so substantive that it can instil financial security in the woman.
However, there is a huge gap between theory and practice.
In the Indian sub-continent, men negotiate the mehr amount based upon the financial strength of women and their families; poorer the woman, lesser the mehr.
Unfortunately, poor women and their families are so desperate to latch on to the first available groom that they agree to this. Worse, several men insist on mehr being simply a gesture, instead of actual money that will provide financial security to the bride. In such cases, they contract for the amount that Prophet Mohammed paid his wives when he got married. In one such instance of 2010, after adjusting for inflation, that amount came to a princely sum of Rs 32 and six paise!
But this is not all. A lot of men never pay mehr citing financial constraints, and if the marriage survives then women also don’t insist upon it. Some men get their wives to formally forgo the mehr, so that there is no obligation on them to pay. This should be regarded as against the spirit of the Quran, because for some women, mehr is the only wealth that gives them a semblance of financial security. Upon divorce, the marriage contract is dissolved and the husband is only required to pay money for her upkeep till she remains in the mandatory waiting period of three months called Iddah. After this, she is theoretically a free woman, eligible for remarriage.
Triple Talaq Law Does Not Help Women
This status of hers does not change with the change in the manner of her divorce. When a poor, unemployed Muslim woman is divorced, whether instantly or following the prescribed waiting period, she in any case is left to fend for herself. If she appeals to the court under Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act of 1986, then she can at best expect a lumpsum maintenance amount which can take care of her beyond the iddah.
Hence, the triple talaq law, ostensibly to empower Muslim women, actually does nothing for women. It only criminalises Muslim men. History shows that laws have seldom been deterrence, whether they are anti-terror, anti-rape or even anti-dowry. Hence, it is unlikely that men who wish to instantly get rid of their wives would stop doing this just because the law now threatens them with a jail sentence.
It is more likely that men who would earlier instantly divorce their wives would now simply abandon them.
In any case, under Islamic law, a man can have four wives. But an abandoned woman cannot remarry unless she is divorced.
The argument that as an abandoned wife she will still have the right to her husband’s property is a hollow one. A woman from the ‘weaker economic strata’, presumably semi-literate, is hardly likely to have married into a family which owns property. Moreover, if the husband has thrown his wife out, where will she have the means to demand her share in the property or take him to court? Besides, the man can still divorce his abandoned wife through one of the approved ways of talaq, thereby availing the advantage of triple talaq without attracting penal action.
Of all the triple talaq cases which made news, a majority were where the husband was leaving or had already left either the town or the country for employment abroad. Hence, instances of talaq been sent through text messages, emails or over phone. Will the long arms of the law expend themselves in booking these offenders residing in the Middle East or wherever? How will this law be enforced? More importantly, how will law ensure that a woman has the means to keep ‘body and soul’ together?
Women Make Poor Choices Due to Financial Insecurity
Clearly, the root of the problem is lack of financial security. It is this that forces women to agree to marriages premised on dowry and continue to suffer in abusive ones. It is this that renders them destitute upon the end of marriage. This vulnerability of women is not religion-specific. The first step towards empowerment is to identify the problem correctly; only then can we start to address it without getting waylaid by political manipulators.
If there is one thing that we can do to help fellow women, is to impress upon them the importance of self-reliance and economic independence. No matter what the level of your privilege is, empowerment is work in progress for all us. If we do it together, we can do it better.
(The writer is executive editor FORCE magazine. Her second book Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India has been recently published by Aleph Book Company. She tweets at @ghazalawahab. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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