India’s Parliament voted to outlaw the practice of “triple talaq,” or instant divorce — a custom practiced in some of India’s Muslim communities — on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), celebrated the victory for his party on social media, tweeting: “Parliament abolishes Triple Talaq and corrects a historical wrong done to Muslim women. This is a victory of gender justice and will further equality in society.”
The approved Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, once signed by Modi, will make it a crime for men to divorce their wives by repeating the word “talaq” — meaning “divorce” in Arabic — three times. In the way this is practiced in India, the act grants men “instant divorces” from their wives without having to take legal action. Offenders could now spend up to three years in jail for continuing the practice.
The bill has been highly controversial, and critics say it targets Muslims, a minority in India.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Congress party leader opposed to the bill, argued that no other religion is subject to the same penalization by the government.
Parliament members who oppose the bill also say that it does not include clear stipulations around spousal support for women in the event that their husbands are sentenced to prison. Both houses in India’s parliament have rejected the proposal to subject the bill to parliamentary committee review and the possibility of creating clear regulations on the subject.
According to the BBC, an “instant divorce” can also be delivered in writing. There have been several cases in India in which men have deserted their wives, dissolving the marriage through email or text. The practice can leave women from impoverished communities vulnerable, as they have no means to take action and little economic opportunity to provide for themselves.
Women’s rights advocates say that the way in which the “triple talaq” rule is employed in India is a misinterpretation of the Islamic rule. According to Al-Jazeera, the custom is most prevalent in Muslim communities from the Hanafi sect of Islam. It is not mentioned in the Qu’ran.
Muslim groups in the country also say that they disagree with the “triple talaq” custom; however, they believe that the matter should be addressed by community leaders instead of government legislators.
The practice has already been banned in over 20 countries, including India’s Muslim neighboring nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The bill to ban “instant divorce” was introduced in 2017, but stalled due to disagreement between the BJP, which supported the bill, and opposing parties within Parliament’s upper house.
In the same year, the Indian Supreme Court deemed the custom a violation of the constitutional rights of Muslim women, saying that it infringes on their right to equality as only a man can carry out the practice of “triple talaq.”
However, law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the upper house of Parliament that hundreds of cases were still reported after the Supreme Court verdict, showing that the ruling did not succeed in stopping the practice. Because the practice often takes place within marginalized communities and is not regulated by one overarching system, clear data on the number of cases is difficult to collect, and there are conflicting figures on how many cases were reported post the court decision.
While equal rights are guaranteed to all of India’s citizens by the constitution, there is no uniform code that governs matters of marriage and divorce. Instead, they are regulated by each community’s related religious customs and traditions.
Based on religious Islamic law, the utterance of the word “talaq” three times can end a marriage, but it is not the preferred or recommended method of divorce in most schools of Islamic thought. Many religious leaders say the “triple talaq” divorce process must take place over a three-month period and after attempts by the couple to reconcile.
While Modi and the BJP have been quick to celebrate the bill as a win for women’s rights, opponents of the measure have questioned the motivation behind the move as Modi and the BJP have long been accused of harboring bias against Muslims and criticized for promoting Hindu nationalism. Critics argue that the law is ripe with opportunity for misuse.
They have also stated that India’s Muslim minority faces severe economic and educational disadvantages, which are not being addressed, while the issues of polygamy and divorce — affecting a smaller percentage of the community — are repeatedly brought to the forefront of political discussion.
Despite the heated debate around the bill, which will become law with Modi’s signature, the measure could prove to be a major step toward the empowerment of Muslim women in affected Indian communities and achieving gender equality for all.