FOR years, if a Muslim man in India wanted to divorce his wife, he didn’t need to go to court, engage lawyers or participate in lengthy settlement and custody battles.

All he needed to do was say — or email, text or Facebook message — the words talaq three times to receive an instant and irrevocable divorce. Women who were divorced in this manner were not entitled to alimony, child support or anything else from their ex-husbands.

This left Muslim women — approximately eight per cent of the Indian population — unusually vulnerable to poverty, violence and predation.

No longer. This week, India’s Supreme Court made a landmark decision to rule the “triple talaq” unconstitutional — but the real question is why eliminating it took so long.

It seems obvious that the practice violates basic women’s rights to independence and agency. The Indian constitution clearly prohibits the state from discriminating based on gender, and what is triple talaq but a form of state-sanctioned gender discrimination?

It gave men the ability to unilaterally divorce their wives, but did not allow women to do the same. (There is only one recorded case of a woman applying talaq on her husband, whereas one in 11 Muslim women in India are reportedly talaq survivors.)

Talaq should have been abolished by legislation years ago. But India’s political parties instead used the suffering of Muslim women as a political football, extending the debate for decades in an attempt to target Muslim — and Hindu nationalist — votes.

Successive Indian governments have treated talaq as a religious freedom issue rather than a women’s rights one. Under India’s secular model, the country left personal law — the law governing inheritance, marriage and family affairs — to its various religious groups.

This was supposed to protect freedom of belief in one of the world’s most religiously diverse countries. And based on Sharia, Islamic law, the triple talaq is an acceptable — if not encouraged — practice.

Any government attempt to change talaq has thus been condemned as an encroachment into religious autonomy, even when the reforms were narrowly defined.

In fact, when the Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that a Muslim woman named Shah Bano was entitled to alimony from her husband, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi overturned the decision to retain the support of Muslims hardliners. His party, the liberal and secular Congress Party, has since made no move to outlaw talaq, relying too heavily on the Muslim vote in critical states to alienate clerics.

And Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for all its rhetoric, has not done much better. It may have challenged triple talaq with gusto, but its words ring hollow: since it came to power in 2014, it has consistently failed to address Muslim concerns and policy priorities.

It has aligned itself with right-wing Hindu nationalist organisations, promoted a “beef ban” that targets religious minorities and taken little action against the wave of anti-Muslim violence sweeping the country.

Little wonder, then, that critics have doubted its sincerity and voiced concern that abolishing triple talaq would be the first of many BJP-led encroachments into Muslim practices.

The most frustrating part of the debate, however, is that talaq should not have been politicised at all. Hindu practices such as child marriage, sati (when widows would cast themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres) and the dowry system were outlawed decades ago without significant opposition.

Moreover, more than 20 Muslim-majority countries have eliminated triple talaq. India isn’t so much encroaching on religious freedom as catching up on women’s rights.

And if there is one issue that all Indian leaders should agree on, it is that gender equality is critical to the nation’s future. Until India empowers its women — especially its minority women, who are often disadvantaged on multiple counts — it will continue to lag behind on education, health and welfare indicators.

While secularism and religious freedom are worth protecting, they should not come at the expense of equality and individual rights.

The Supreme Court decision striking down triple talaq should still be celebrated — even if it is 70 years too late. But we shouldn’t applaud the politicians and parties that turned the debate into a decades-long saga.

We should instead celebrate the lawyers, civil society groups and triple talaq survivors who persevered through years of government stonewalling — and finally brought Indian secularism into the 21st century.

—By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2017

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