On December 12, 2022, Supreme Court of India issued notices to the Central Government and Law Commission of India on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), requesting abolition on practices of polygamy and other Islamic practices like Mut’ah marriages, Misyar marriages and Nikah-halala as they violate Fundamental Rights of the Muslim women in India under Articles 14, 15, 21 and 25 of the Constitution. BMMA, an organisation working for equal rights for Muslim women in India, on December 21, 2022 released a report ‘Status of women in polygamous marriages and need for legal protection’ in Mumbai, Maharashtra. In the background of the survey and PIL, BMMA Co-founder Zakia Soman spoke exclusively to Organiser Special Correspondent, Nishant Kumar Azad. Excerpts:
What was the idea behind the survey?
We have been demanding a codified Muslim family law for many years. After abolition of triple talaq, we are particularly focused on child marriages and polygamy as they lead to lifelong injustice to women. We wanted to highlight the condition of women in polygamous marriages, their emotional trauma, economic hardships and social loss of face etc. Women have expressed these feelings in the survey.
The survey was conducted in 2017. What is the reason behind the delay to bring it into the public domain?
The survey was conducted in 2017 and the report was ready by end of 2018. We wanted to release it along with a PIL in the Supreme Court against polygamy. The PIL took some time to prepare since finding pro bono lawyers etc, took time. By the time we were about to file, Covid-19 arrived. This led to a gap of almost 3 years. Finally, the PIL was admitted and on December 12, 2022 the Supreme Court (SC) issued notice to the Centre in our PIL.
“In 1997, the Supreme Court refused to interfere with the practice of polygamy saying the matter was a policy decision and the court should not interfere. But in November 2022, the court agreed to form a constitution bench to conduct proceedings on pleas related polygamy and Nikah Halala”
The Muslim Personal law board is against the Supreme Court idea of banning polygamy. It has opposed the petition in the SC.
Muslim Personal Law Board is at the heart of the problem. It is futile to expect any solutions from them. Even in triple talaq cases, women began approaching courts after utter failure of the board and those affiliated to them. They insist on maintaining patriarchal status quo and come in the way of women’s rights becoming reality. They can continue to oppose but I am confident the SC will come to the women’s help & reject their pleas.
In 1997, the Apex Court refused to interfere with the practice of polygamy saying the matter was a policy decision and the court should not interfere. But in November 2022, the court agreed to form a constitution bench to conduct proceedings on pleas related polygamy and ‘Nikah Halala’.
The study conducted across 11 states in India, surveyed the status of wives whose husbands are in polygamous marriages. The report highlighted that an overwhelming number of women said that they felt a sense of betrayal, loss of dignity and loss of self-respect when their husbands married other women
Summary of Findings
- Polygamous marriage causes tremendous emotional trauma to the woman apart from economic and other hardships. It effects the woman’s sense of self respect, self-esteem and dignity as a human being
- Most wives in polygamous unions have low education and income status. 77 per cent first wives are dropouts below SSC, 43 per cent do not have an income. Further, a large proportion of women in such arrangements – about 52 per cent – have an income below Rs 10,000. This indicates that women in these marriages are deprived of economic independence
- In 49 per cent of the cases where the woman happens to be in a polygamous union, the parents have selected the spouse. This shows the relatively little autonomy that women have within this institution and makes a mockery of the Quranic provision of consent. It also highlights that assumptions about free, autonomous choice of spouses in polygamy is not true
- An overwhelming number of women said they felt a sense of betrayal, loss of dignity and loss of self-respect when the husband remarried despite her being the wife
- The survey highlights severe mental health issues that plague the women
- 50 per cent of the women said that they were depressed most of the time. They also reported other symptoms of depression such as lack of adequate sleep (43 per cent), frequent aches and pains (33 per cent), not feeling good about themselves (33 per cent), and even a tendency to self-harm (43 per cent)
- An overwhelming number of women (84 per cent) felt that polygamy should be outlawed. A large number of them (73 per cent) even said that the husband who takes a second wife should be punished
Are you optimistic that the Apex Court’s decision will be in your favour?
We are extremely hopeful that we will get justice. The SC will see the injustice inherent in the system. Our petition argues that Islam permitted polygamy in a certain context and at a time long ago, but it never encouraged polygamy. Also, Islam doesn’t permit polygamy in today’s context where there is no war, no widows & orphans in need of help. Plus, in the modern age, widows can be helped through education & economic empowerment.
Your organisation has played a key role in legally banning instant triple talaq, so do you think that this survey will pave the way to end polygamy?
Yes, it is high time polygamy is made illegal. The idea of a man having multiple wives is anathema to women’s human rights, dignity and equality.
“Muslim Personal Law Board is at the heart of the problem. It is futile to expect any solutions from them. Even in triple talaq cases, women began approaching courts after utter failure of the board and those affiliated to them. They insist on maintaining patriarchal status quo and come in the way of women’s rights becoming reality. They can continue to oppose but I am confident the SC will come to the women’s help & reject their pleas”
Do you see any possibility of educated moderate Muslims extending support in your survey?
There are many Muslims who support the rights of women. They must begin speaking out more vocally to support the campaign.
What is your action plan now?
Besides pursuing the PIL, we will write to women’s commissions, minorities commission and progressive MPs, who support gender equality. We will also continue to educate the public about the need to abolish such unjust practices.