The fight against halala marriages in India

A selfie of Nida Khan, used with her permission.

A selfie of Nida Khan, used with her permission.

Nida Khan was 21 and married for five months when her husband assaulted and then deserted her by an ancient practice called instant triple talaq, a form of divorce where a Muslim man pronounces “talaq” (Arabic for divorce) three times in a row to immediately divorce her. He was angry that Khan didn’t fulfil his dowry demands, she says.

After the divorce, Khan began talking to other women in her situation and working for women’s rights in her neighborhood. Some of the women were being forced to marry another man in order to go back and remarry their first husbands. Last year, when Khan spoke out against the practice, called halala marriage, a local cleric told the neighborhood to not associate with her.

“I became untouchable,” Khan said. “People refused to take food from the plate I touched. My father was pulled out of a local mosque when he went there to offer prayers.”

Instant triple talaq is banned in most Muslim-majority countries, but India is only recently catching up. As a minority, Muslims in India are allowed to follow Islamic law called Shariat for matters related to family and marriage in the name of religious freedom. Calling for a uniform civil code which would treat all citizens equally, critics believe that following Shariat violates Muslim women’s rights.

A proposed triple talaq bill in the Indian parliament would criminalize the practice, though Hindu, Sikh, Christian and other men would not face criminal charges for deserting their wives. There is also not data to show how many Indian Muslim men already oppose the practice.

Banning triple talaq is not enough, Khan says. She sees halala marriages, also called tahleel, as equally egregious to Muslim women’s rights. Khan started a legal aid charity called Ala Hazrat Helping Society to help women who have suffered domestic violence, instant divorce and halala.

Some Sunni Muslims believe that since a divorced wife becomes “haram” or unlawful, the only way to undo divorce is for the woman to marry someone else, even a relative, consummate the marriage, and then divorce him to remarry the first husband. They interpret this belief from the Quran:

“She is not lawful to him thereafter until she has married another husband. Then, if the other husband dies, or divorces her, it is no sin on both of them that they reunite, provided they feel that they can keep the limits ordained by Allah” (al-Baqarah (2:229).

Some Sunni clerics believe that the practice is a form of punishment for the man who divorces his wife impulsively without thinking of consequences.

“It’s a condition mentioned in Quran to restrain men from taking divorce for granted,” said Maulana Intezaar Ahmad Qadri, President, Sunni Ulema Council (Bareilly) – an organization of Sunni clerics. “If the husband wants to remarry his wife, then the wife will have to become halal first by marrying someone else, which will ruin the husband’s image in society. It will be a mental trauma for him.”

Khan calls the belief sheer misogyny justifying rape.

“How can it be only traumatic to the man? He might face mental trauma, but the woman is traumatized both mentally and physically. And if it’s the man who has given divorce, why is woman subjected to this evil practice?” she said.

The majority of Muslims in India believe halala is un-Islamic when abusive to women, according to Shaista Ambar, founder of All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board, one of the first organizations which stood for Muslim women’s rights in India.

“We consider it a form of rape which a Muslim woman is subjected to in the name of Islam – which, in fact, doesn’t permit it,” she said. “Halala is forbidden in Islam if it happens with the intention of remarrying your previous partner. The procedure mentioned in the Quran is valid only if it [instant divorce] happens without planning beforehand.”

Ambar claimed that some Muslim clerics, who have become the custodians of Islam, distort the meaning of Quranic verses to justify the misuse of halala to subjugate women and impose their authority.

“Sometimes, the cleric himself participates in halala by marrying the divorced woman, and promises secrecy in exchange for money,” Khan said.

When confronted with the allegations against clerics, Maulana Qadri said, “These are rogue and corrupt women who are trying to mock the religion. They don’t follow Islam. They are the ones who roam around in open without “purdah” (veil). Because of them, Islamic law is being attacked.” 

In a case which was widely covered by Indian media, a halala victim was forced to have sex with her father-in-law after her husband divorced her for not being able to give birth to a child.

“It is a social taboo,” said Zakia Soman, co-founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement). “Women who go through that [halala] are stigmatized, which is why they don’t come out to speak against it.”

Soman believes Islam doesn’t sanction halala.  

“We are living in a male-dominated society,” she said. “The reason behind such practices is the patriarchy, which is deep-rooted in the minds of clerics who have hijacked Shariat in India. Since Muslims suffer from a low literacy rate in the country, few people question the authority of religious leaders.”   

Khan’s fight against her instant divorce attracted a lot of media attention, which in turn fueled backlash against her. Last year, a local cleric appealed to the Muslims living in her neighborhood in Uttar Pradesh to “throw her out of Islam.”

“No medicines will be provided if she falls ill. If she dies, no one is allowed to offer prayer on her funeral procession,” he said at a press conference. “She cannot be buried in a graveyard after her death." This was followed by the head of Faizan-e-Madina Council, a local Muslim organization, announcing a cash prize for throwing her out of the country.

Soman’s organization, which is working towards legal and social reforms within the Muslim community, is planning to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on halala. In 2017, the court called instant triple talaq unconstitutional.

According to Soman, it is both un-Islamic and against the fundamental rights of Muslim women protected by the Indian constitution.

“Muslim women want parity with other Indian women now who have more rights in their marital affairs,” she said. After filing the PIL, Soman said, “we will also write to the law minister, the women and child welfare minister, and the opposition leader on the issue seeking their help.” The PIL will also seek a ban on polygamy, which is legal for Indian Muslims.