JAIPUR — Being a qazi, or a Muslim expert on religious law, means much more to Safia Akhtar than just having the power to solemnize a marriage. “As a qazi, I want to be a true counselor to the women of my community and not only help them resolve issues concerning their rights but also ensure that they get justice,” she said.
Akhtar, who has been training at a center for Islamic learning with women from across India, knows that she may be challenged in playing a legal-religious role that Muslim societies around the world have traditionally reserved for men. “I may encounter opposition and I know there will be hurdles to overcome, but whatever I do is going to be as per the holy Quran, so I am not worried,” she said.
She is one of 30 Muslim women training in Jaipur, Rajasthan, at a center for Islamic learning and theology. The center, Darun Uloom Niswaan, was created by the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement (Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan). This first group of female qazis gets grounded in Quranic injunctions on Muslim marriage and family law, the constitution of India as well as Indian and global jurisprudence on gender justice and equality.
Barring a few exceptions, male qazis have been the norm in India, where Muslims account for more than 14 percent of the Indian population, which is nearing 1.3 billion. The Indian Muslim Women’s Movement is changing this reality. Naturally, this effort has drawn strong reactions and sparked heated debates in the community. “We are definitely being opposed,” Akhtar said. “But then that was anticipated.”
Anwar Shah, a former secretary of a prominent mosque in Jaipur and a critic, said: “A mere week or 10 days’ training is highly inadequate to make someone a qazi or acquire in-depth knowledge of the holy Quran or Hadis or Islam. In any case, this new role as a justice provider is really not applicable in a democratic country like India, where we have a proper judicial system.”
Wahid Khatri, another prominent mosque official, said: “Whether women should become qazis or not is a nonissue, unnecessarily hyped by media. There are several other real issues confronting Muslim society that need to be addressed first, including women’s education and poverty.”
With much dissent inside the Muslim community, the obvious question is, Why is there a need for female qazis in the first place? Zakia Soman, a co-founder of the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement and a trustee of the Jaipur learning center, said: “A qazi plays an important role in our society. He or she solemnizes marriages and also validates divorce.”
“In our last 10 years of work across different states,” she continued, the women’s movement observed that a general ignorance of Quranic injunctions sustains the widespread, regressive practice of the triple talaq, under which a man can divorce a woman by repeating his intention three times, and halala, which makes a marital reconciliation complicated and hurtful for a woman, despite that there is no Quranic sanction for these actions.
“This is a serious issue as it has a direct impact on a woman’s life,” Soman said. “We felt that there is an urgent need for a brigade of sensitive and properly informed female qazis who can stand up for women.”
Marriage in Islam is a social agreement and the marriage contract is a significant document. But traditionally, it doesn’t consist of anything beyond names, signatures and basic details.
“So, in the absence of any terms of agreement mentioned,” Soman said, “the rights and entitlements of women are often ignored or violated. Generally, after the triple talaq is pronounced, a woman is ousted from her home, often with the children but without any compensation whatsoever for their upkeep or education. If a man conceals a previous marriage, then the wife cannot do anything since there are no comprehensive details [proof] in the marriage document. Even a mandatory payment made by the groom or his father to the bride at the time of marriage, which legally becomes her property — an essential right of a Muslim woman — is often diluted,” she said.
Khatun Sheikh of the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement explained what a woman may face in a troubled marriage.
“There are cases where both husband and wife want to reunite after a dispute but then halala [the practice under which a woman must be with another man before she can reunite with her former husband] comes in the way. We believe that if there are women qazis, then there is a greater chance of women getting justice. Whether the society accepts it or not, our endeavor is to take the initiative forward.”
No ban on women as qazis exists in the Quran, and a few of them have practiced in India. Women trained as qazis by the Jaipur center hope to ensure that underage marriages do not happen, that a man cannot undertake a second marriage while his first wife is still around, that the proof of residence of a man and his source of income are ascertained before he enters into a marriage contract and that both parties are entering into the marriage out of free will and not by force or fraud.
“A lot of legal problems faced by Muslim women will be prevented if the qazi plays his or her role with responsibility,” said Noorjehan Safia Niaz, a co-founder of the women’s movement. “Our attempt is to understand religion with a feminist perspective and create awareness among women so that they speak the language of justice and development.”
© Women’s Feature Service