Uniform Civil Code: Not men vs women, Muslims

This article is in response to Alice Evans’s article titled Will the BJP’s plan for a Uniform Civil Code save Muslim women? published on Feb 03, 2021.

As evident from the title itself, the article is yet another perspective from an alien gaze on the “saving” of Muslim women. 

The article starts with the words “Indian Muslims have always been free to apply their own personal laws—concerning marriage, divorce and inheritance.” This statement apart from sounding condescending can be read in a manner that is legally incorrect. Not only Indian Muslims, all communities—religious, tribal or otherwise—can avail community-specific/religion-based laws from the dual legal regime that India imbibes. All communities can avail general laws too. Moreover, customary laws have an unavoidable, rather vital, existence in all jurisprudence irrespective of religions. Laws in India are more in line with the region than religion, so to speak. Consequently, personal laws remain in the Concurrent List in the Constitution of India also empowering the regional governments to make personal laws.

The author’s statement “Hindu women are legally entitled to divorce and alimony, but this does not seem to improve their capacity to leave abusive men” has the potential of being misread. It creates a problematic assumption that Muslim women are not entitled to these rights. Muslim women are very much entitled to divorce and alimony, rather the Islamic system was the very first system in the entire world (Muslim: 7th century, British: 1857, Hindu: 1955) to grant Muslim women these rights. 

Going further, the article mentions how it was the fear of “aggravating the minority” (Muslims here) that led Congress to upheld legal pluralism and Modi has no such “reservations” or “compunctions about aggravating Muslims”. The article lauds pursuing a UCC by the Modi government as a “victory for Muslim women” by improving “gender equality”. Unsurprisingly, the article creates the good-bad Muslim binary by arbitrarily placing opposition to the “reforms” as “conservative” and supporters as “progressive”. There is no mention of the opposition to the Hindu Code Bill by the Hindu community especially the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, BJP’s ideologue. The opposition ended up in severe dilution of the Hindu Code Bill and the subsequent disintegration. 

The language of the article is interesting. While huge protests against the Shah Bano judgment’s independent interpretations of Islamic texts have been categorized as “mobilization” of Muslim women, on the other hand, much smaller protests are categorized as “organized” resistance and demand for a UCC (an enigma with no blueprint) from all Indian Muslim women. 

The author further goes on to state how “Muslim women are more much more likely to practice purdah” and “are less likely to participate in the labour force, and earn money” under the heading “Are Muslims more patriarchal?”. Patriarchy, a term that whitewashed decades of systematic discrimination (Sachchar Report), structural, political and social gatekeeping of Muslim women.  

As one of its main themes, the article discusses the impacts of communal violence particularly on Muslim women. It introduces the Gujarat pogrom in an interesting way, it reads: “In 2002, a train was burnt in Gujarat, killing 58 Hindu pilgrims. In retaliation, there was sustained communal violence. Women and young girls were stripped, paraded naked, gang-raped, mutilated, quartered and burnt”. Pay attention to the framing of these sentences. The conscious portrayal of a pogrom as a mere act of “retaliation”. The erasure of the Muslim identity of the “women and young girls” who were raped but a specific mention of the religious identity of the pilgrims and no mention at all of the sufferings of thousands of Muslim men is appalling. 

Be it lynching, “Love Jihad” laws to the criminalization of Triple Talaq—Muslim men are undoubtedly the biggest victims of India’s Muslim hate. On the other hand, Muslim women are often projected as oppressed or gullible—lacking agency and easy to be manipulated—like all women. Even Hindu women, with all the Hindu privilege, are projected as easy targets of conversions by Muslim men. But Muslim men, on the other hand, are portrayed as oppressors with insatiable sexual appetites. “Forcing” their “own” women to cover and “enticing” women of “others”. Just like the black men of America, from the State to the society at large, the dehumanization of Muslim men is manifest.

Moreover, the erasure of the Muslim identity of the women in question is also important. The women that the author mentions were not raped, killed and mutilated for them being women—they were raped, killed and mutilated for them being Muslim. Their Muslim identity that the author very easily decides to omit is the very identity that caused the violence that the author stresses upon.

Now, coming to the assessment of the impact on Muslim women, the author constructs two arguments. Firstly, communal violence ghettoizes Muslim women by “stricter dress codes” and “tightened restrictions on..mobility and economic autonomy” forced upon them by Muslim men. “By shrinking their worlds, women gain safety”, the author says. The second argument that is constructed is Muslim women are constrained in exploring cities, “loiter with friends, expands their horizons, critique unfair practices, and organize reforms”. The author highlights how due to these very reasons Muslim women are “reluctant to publicly decry Islamic practices”. These assumptions are problematic and completely negates Muslim women’s agency. We don’t need to go far, last year, Muslim women (mostly in hijabs) actively participated in one of the biggest protests this country has witnessed. The same Shaheen Bagh that was tokenized by all factions, which was reduced solely to a feminist lens and most importantly, which was the brainchild of a Muslim man—Sharjeel Imam. Most people languishing in jails for these public decries are also Muslim men.

The article ends abruptly on a call for a UCC without creating any analogy with the discussion in the article. It also drags Jamat-e-Islami’s influence in between an argument of communal violence as an exacerbator of pre-existing inequalities. Is this the fear of “Muslim looking” names or bearded men, we know not.

Thus, I reiterate, the article completely oppresses the idea of Muslim women who do not want to lose their Muslimness and confines them to an outside perspective. Gender perspective, often the only identity understood by an alien gaze is insufficient to understand the intricacies, nuances and intersectionality of another community. The article is far away from the reality of Muslim women and the sole objective appears to be the demonization of Muslim men. It thus gives an understanding of Islamophobia. This article is a template for people outside the Muslim community to listen more and most importantly to unlearn and let the saviour complex be at rest.

Nabeela Jamil is a Delhi based lawyer.