Do you want to take her back alive? Or do you want her corpse?” That’s what Jahanara’s husband asked her mother as he beat his wife 10 years ago. That night, Jahanara gave up on her brutal marriage and left her home and four children.
Since then, her husband has refused to let her see the children, though they live in the same city, Jaipur. He has paid no alimony. He has refused to give her the 15 grammes of gold promised as part of the mandatory payment that Muslim men must make to their wives if the marriage ends. Her share in the marital home has also been denied her.
Seeking justice, 45-year-old Jahanara (who goes by only one name), went to see her local kazi or Islamic judge, who adjudicates in marriage, polygamy, divorce, triple talaq (instant divorce) and custody. The job of the kazi, usually a man, is to dispense justice according to Qur’anic principles. The post is generally passed down from father to son and is steeped in tradition.
However, like so many women before her, Jahanara came away disappointed and bitter. “He refused to help me get my rights,” she says. “I refused to believe that my situation was just. I went around Jaipur asking ulemas [scholars] if the injustice done to me was permitted by the Qur’an. I asked them: Is this my status as a woman in the Qur’an? Is this the ‘justice’ the Qur’an gives me? They all told me: ‘Yes. This is your position. Endure it.’”
She decided to fight back. Today, Jahanara is one of the first female kazis in India.
Since marriage is a legal contract under Islam, not a sacrament, the terms and conditions of the nikah (marriage) must be discussed and negotiated with the kazi. At the moment, contracts tend to favour the husband.
On a hot and muggy day, Jahanara and Begum sit in a small office in a winding alley off a noisy bazaar in Jaipur’s Muslim quarter. They are trying to soothe the acrimonious exchanges between Imran Khan and his young wife, Huma. Their one-year marriage has hit turbulence, and they hurl accusations at each other, with their parents egging them on.
Jahanara and Begum listen to the grievances of both sides. They tell the parents to keep out of the marriage and counsel the couple that they need to be more tolerant.
“A male kazi would have told Huma to go back home at once and obey her husband,” says Begum. “Most Muslim women don’t know anything about their rights. But now things will be different because we have learned what the Qur’an says.”
Sitting with them is Nishat Husain, head of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (a women’s group) in Jaipur, who says that the two kazis have much work to do.
“Before these two new kazis perform the nikah, they are going to ask the man for proof of his qualifications, for a death certificate if he says his wife died, and for a divorce certificate if he says he is divorced, for a medical certificate, for job proof. This has to be done to protect women, but traditional kazis don’t do it,” says Husain.