Muslim Women Rights But Without UCC? Why Internal Reform Could Be The More Pragmatic Option, For Now

Arshia Malik

Feb 24, 2023, 12:08 PM | Updated 01:10 PM IST

Muslim students in a classroom (Pixnio)
Muslim students in a classroom (Pixnio)
  • An internal reform with respect to women rights or a statutory UCC: What is Muslim society more likely to adapt to?
  • The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is a proposal to replace the personal laws of various religious communities in India with a common set of laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other personal matters.

    The idea of a UCC is based on the principle that all citizens of India should be subject to the same laws, irrespective of their religion or community.

    Currently, different religious communities in India follow their own personal laws in matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

    For example, Hindus follow the Hindu Marriage Act and the Hindu Succession Act, while Muslims follow the Muslim Personal Law in these matters.

    This has led to disparities and inconsistencies in the application of laws and has been criticised for perpetuating gender inequality and discrimination.

    Proponents of the UCC argue that it would help to create a more secular and equitable society and would be a step towards achieving gender justice.

    However, opponents argue that it could infringe upon the religious freedoms of minority communities and could be difficult to implement in a diverse and complex society like India.

    The issue remains a subject of debate and discussion in India.

    Adding to this debate is the Forum for Muslim Women’s Gender Justice (FMWGJ), a group that demands reforms in Muslim inheritance laws in the country, but opposes the UCC.

    They released a seven-page pamphlet as part of their campaign on 14 February 2023, in Kannur, Kerala. The pamphlet was released by actor and lawyer Shukkoor by handing over a copy to social worker Fatima Maliyekkal.

    The main points of the pamphlet are as follows:

    • The pamphlet demands timely changes in the Muslim inheritance laws, which are based on the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937.

    • The pamphlet argues that the current laws discriminate against Muslim women and deprive them of their rightful share of property.

    • The pamphlet cites Quranic verses and Islamic jurisprudence to support the claim that Islam grants equal inheritance rights to men and women.

    • The pamphlet also highlights some real-life cases of Muslim women who have been denied or cheated out of their property by their male relatives or guardians.

    • The pamphlet appeals to the government, judiciary, religious leaders, and civil society to take steps to ensure justice and equality for Muslim women.

    According to a news article, actor, and lawyer Shukkoor is opposed to UCC because he believes that it would destroy the diversity and democracy in India.

    He argues that the Quran verse 4:12, 176, which gives responsibility of orphans to their relatives, was misinterpreted to take over properties of families having only female members as heirs.

    He claims that Islam grants equal inheritance rights to men and women, and that the Muslim personal law should be respected and followed.

    It isn't like even this campaign is without its challenges from conservative Indian Muslims and clergy.

    The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937, which governs the inheritance rights of Muslims in India, is based on two schools of Muslim personal law: Shia and Hanafi.

    These schools have different interpretations of Quranic verses and Islamic jurisprudence on inheritance matters.

    The Muslim Personal Law Board, which is a non-governmental body that claims to represent the interests of Muslims in India, has opposed any reforms or interventions in the Muslim personal law, arguing that it is a matter of religious freedom and identity.

    The patriarchal norms and practices prevalent in some sections of the Muslim community have also hindered the recognition and implementation of equal inheritance rights for Muslim women.

    Many women face social pressure, threats, violence, or ostracism if they claim their share of property or challenge their male relatives or guardians.

    The lack of awareness and education among many Muslim women about their legal rights and remedies has also contributed to their marginalisation and exploitation.

    Many women do not know how to access the courts or legal aid services or are afraid of facing harassment or backlash from their families or communities.

    So Shukkoor and the activist Fatima, and others like her would need to sit down and ponder over the benefits of the UCC.

    Speaking as an Indian woman of Muslim heritage whose mother’s story is like the Shah Bano case of 1985-86, I feel it is incumbent upon the courts to interpret the Muslim personal law in accordance with the Quranic verses and Islamic jurisprudence that grant equal inheritance rights to men and women, and not rely on outdated or patriarchal customs or traditions.

    The religious leaders and scholars who are obsessed with political Islam should turn their attention towards internal contradictions within Islam and educate and sensitise the Muslim community about the true teachings of Islam on inheritance matters, and dispel any misconceptions or misinterpretations that have been used to justify discrimination or oppression of Muslim women.

    The civil society should also support and encourage Muslim women who assert their rights and challenge injustice.

    The media should raise awareness and mobilise public opinion in favour of equal inheritance rights for Muslim women and expose any cases of violation or abuse that occur in the name of religion or culture.

    They should also provide support and solidarity to Muslim women who face resistance or backlash from their families or communities.

    In conclusion, what is Muslim society more likely to adapt to - an internal reform with respect to women rights or a statutory UCC?

    Considering how Muslim groups mobilised during the Shah Bano case and the triple talaq case, it will be pragmatic and realistic to work for immediate internal reform rather than the UCC which is yet to find consensus among the majority Hindus too.

    The government has a responsibility to protect and promote the rights and welfare of all its citizens, especially those who are marginalised or vulnerable. The government is capable enough to know that it cannot impose or dictate any solution that would violate or undermine the religious freedom or identity of any community. Hence it may be the better option to first opt for extensive internal reforms within the Muslim Personal Laws, which could create the mindset for a futuristic UCC once a consensus is formed across all communities.

    Arshia Malik is a columnist and commentator on social issues with particular emphasis on Islam in the Indian subcontinent.

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