By Dr. Asma Sayed
Dr Asma Sayed is a professor of English at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Canada. She researches and writes about South Asian literature and cinema.
I remember a story that was talked about often in our extended family circles when I was growing up in India: that of an uncle who one day, in a fit of rage, uttered three words and divorced his wife as per Islamic tradition in his town. The three dreadful words were: talaq talaq, talaq (divorce, divorce, divorce). The uncle regretted his decision the next day and wanted his wife back. But as per Islamic laws, his wife would have to perform halala; that is, she would have to marry another man, consummate the marriage, be divorced again, and then she could have remarried my uncle. She refused to do so. More power to such women! However, I have always wondered what happened to her after a life that was altered in a matter of seconds because her husband had the power to do so with the use of a word repeated thrice. Shazia Javed’s documentary film 3 Seconds Divorce sets out to answer such questions as it focuses on women whose lives have been affected by the triple talaq law in India.
3 Seconds Divorce brings to light some of the work done by Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), or the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement, a grassroots organization that works to educate, empower, and fight for justice for Muslim women in India. The film also focuses on the struggles of one woman, Lubna, who herself having been a survivor of triple talaq, or instant divorce, has become an activist and part of BMMA.
As the film informs us, different faith-based communities in India are governed by their own personal laws in family matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Existing divorce laws for Muslims in India, which date back to the 1930s, are not clear on issues such as polygamy, divorce, and inheritance. Muslims are governed by Sharia laws, which are mostly un-codified and therefore open to different interpretations. Triple divorce or oral divorce is one such practice. As a result, Indian women in the twenty-first century are being divorced over the phone, and via text messages, without even any witnesses. If a husband says or writes divorce three times, the woman is deemed to have been divorced. They are by proxy also subject to halala.
Javed’s film sheds light on the practice of halala as well. The enthusiasm on the part of clerics for halala makes one suspicious about their intentions. As the film asserts, in at least 8% of the cases, women have been advised to go for halala with the cleric offering to help in finding somebody willing to marry the woman for one night. Since halala is sanctioned by prominent religious leaders, people usually do not go against it. BMMA, and some religious leaders, believe that Islam does not sanction instant triple divorce and halala. As Javed presents, some scholars say that the three divorces are meant to be given over a period of time during which rights of both the parties are determined. However, the problem remains unresolved as the current body overseeing the implementation of Muslim law in India is lead by conservative leaders who sanction the triple-divorce and halala. As one of the activists mentions, halala is akin to legalized prostitution. One must assert that it is also akin to rape. That such inhumane laws are still practised in some parts of the world is a matter of grave concern, and Javed rightly and skillfully draws her audience’s attention to such unjust practices.
‘Triple-divorce’ and halala are strongly linked in terms of cultural belief and practice to dowry and other forms of gender-sexual oppression and abuse. Those men who orally divorce their wives typically keep the dowry when they divorce; they often remarry to gain access to yet another dowry. As the film informs, in one case, when a woman tried to file a police complaint of domestic violence, her husband orally divorced her in that same police station. Essentially, oral divorce is used as a weapon against women who fear losing their status and security as married women, and stops them from raising their voices against abuse of any form. Many single women and widows in India, particularly in the lower classes, have very precarious lives without the protection of a male family member. The ulema, or the clergy, are divided on the matter with a majority believing that triple divorce is within Islamic principles.
The arguments offered by some of the clerics in favour of triple divorce and halala are part of a patriarchal mindset, not Islamic philosophical traditions. For instance, in the film, one of the clerics argues that since men are the main bread-winners of the household, Allah has granted them privilege in the form of the right to divorce their wives. If this is the argument, then what will happen when women achieve salary equity? Clearly, institutionalized patriarchy in the form of inequitable income levels between men and women cannot serve as the justification for further forms of exploitation. However, many faithful Muslims believe in the intellectual and moral superiority of the clerics, or at the very least, do not want to anger them. People generally, for a range of reasons, choose not to challenge their faith leaders. Thus, even Lubna’s mother, although she supports Lubna, worries that Lubna might be angering the clerics in the community.
Furthermore, I should clarify that not all factions of Islam agree with this law. There is much discrepancy among, for instance, Shia and Sunni followers about this particular law, as about many other aspects of Islamic practice. Similarly, there are disagreements about laws pertaining to halala.
The documentary follows the life of Lubna, as she struggles to support herself and her son by tutoring students. Her husband divorced her unilaterally. She rose out of the shock of it, went back to school, became a teacher, and also joined BMMA as well as other human rights organizations. She then became a source of information and inspiration for other women who were divorced in this same manner. Most of the women subject to instant divorce are from the lower socio-economic classes and have little education. Once divorced, they have little means to support themselves. Lubna and other activists help find resources for such women. However, as the film illustrates, Lubna’s journey has not been easy. She speaks emotionally at different intervals about being a single mother in a country that not only stigmatizes divorced women, but also has very little government support in place. It is tough. Seeing her strength, courage and her determination to hurdle so many socio-cultural and institutionalized obstacles, audiences must feel moved and enraged, much as I did. Javed does a remarkable job of representing the affective realities of Lubna’s life, without providing too much distracting background commentary. This minimalist narrative approach is successful, as viewers are able to understand Lubna’s, and other women’s, struggles, as narrated in their own voices.
Many women like Lubna have suffered tremendously, and there is little social and political will in India to make a change. Dr. Noorjehan Safia Niaz, co-founder of the BMMA, argues that women are excluded in the decision making processes. Most consultations, especially at political level, are with Muslim men, particularly male clerics, who ensure the continuity of patriarchal agendas. Various Indian governments, since the country achieved independence in 1947, have been reluctant to change the law as they do not want to offend the clerics who have a huge influence on Muslim populace. At the same time, BMMA continued to diligently push for change in legislation. They lobbied both within and outside of Muslim communities, gathered data, and argued in support of change. BMMA finally launched a signature campaign in 2017 and collected signatures of 50,000 men and women who were against triple-talaq.
Javed started filming three years ago in 2014. However, the release of the film has been more than timely as India just set out to change the law. After multiple petitions, the Supreme court of India finally declared instant triple-divorce illegal on 22 August, 2017. There have been controversies around the change in the law. Mostly people have welcomed the change. However, the bill also proposes to criminalize triple talaq which has been an issue of contention and needs further discussion. Ironically, the legal change has been brought in by the current ultra conservative government which has typically been considered anti-Muslim. Thus, the decision to ban triple-talaq has been received with some scepticism: is this government doing this to malign Muslims, to create segregations within the community? Is the government trying to woo Muslim female voters? BMMA and their activists have been asked if they are backed by fringe right-wing anti-Islamic forces. What is forgotten in such arguments is that at the core of the matter are women’s basic human rights, their right to not be divorced unilaterally and to live free of the fear of being rendered homeless on a whim. If their safety is brought in by the current BJP government and even if that government may have an agenda, women can only rejoice that their rights have been upheld. There are many other laws that need to be codified as Muslim women continue their fight against those.
The 54-minute documentary premiered at the Mumbai International Film Festival in January 2018. The film is an important step in documenting the changing lives of Muslim women in India. Javed has resisted the urge to speak for the women, instead making a space for them to use their own voices and advocate for themselves: “My job was to amplify their voice, give them a platform, and deal with it within that framework” (https://www.cinestaan.com/). Javed is an award-winning filmmaker with film and media degrees from Jamia Millia Islamia in India as well as York University in Canada. Her docu-short Namrata was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and was a finalist for three Alberta Media Production Industry awards. Javed is a winner of multiple awards, and her work has screened at international film festivals such as Hot Docs, DOXA, Global Visions, and Durban International among many others. Javed faced much backlash from conservative Muslims during the making of 3 Seconds Divorce. The topic she broaches in the film is controversial and she has shown tremendous courage in dealing with it. Her efforts, and those of women who came forward through the film, must be commended. History will have to take note of such grassroots activism for which women are investing their time and energy while risking their own safety.