One-sided analysis

BY tca| IN Opinion | 03/07/2005
No newspaper had the courage to discuss the Imrana issue from every angle. The majority took the safe womenøs right line.

You don`t say

Darius Nakhoonwala


There is nothing like old fashioned obscurantism to set off a gnashing of teeth and raising of hackles amongst India`s growing community of leader writers and commentators. The Imrana affair is a case in point.

What appears to have happened - appears, because now they are saying the lady was not raped - is clear enough. An Islamic seminary, the Darul Uloom Deoband, asked a Muslim woman, who was allegedly raped by her father-in-law, not to live with her husband but with her father-in-law.

All newspapers went into a tizzy. The Hindu said the fatwa "called into question the fundamental principles of human dignity and freedom enshrined in the Constitution."

The Indian Express took a similar line. "The Deoband ulema and the Muslim Personal Law Board have made it quite apparent that, even in the 21st century, authorities that act under the imprimatur of religion do not understand one simple principle: that a woman is a person in her own right. She should be allowed to exercise her choices…. Even secular courts have occasionally crossed the line by trying to second guess the "real" interests of a violated woman. Women are still not acknowledged as agents in their own rights."

The Telegraph said "Imrana`s personhood is precisely the thing that has been most absent and the least heard."

Except for a few newspapers, such as the Tribune of Chandigarh, most newspapers adopted this - what I would call safe - line. It converts a very complex issue into a single point one, namely, of women`s rights.

That aspect is doubtless very important and perhaps the most important in some ways. But there are other issues as well, such as questions of the law of the land, single sources of unimpeachable authority, the conflict between criminal and personal law and even the doctrinaire reason (Sura 33.37 of the Koran) why the fatwa was issued.

No newspaper, I beg to submit, had the courage to discuss this. They all took the CPM line (which would not want to alienate Muslim voters in the forthcoming Assembly election in Kerala) that the central issue was women`s rights.

That said, The Hindu stated the problem most clearly. "Fatwas, whether or not mandated by religious scriptures, have no place in a secular society. Human rights and gender justice are too important to be left in the hands of clerics and priests. Village councils and community bodies formed on the basis of caste or religion have for a long time exercised an extra-judicial authority over people, especially in rural areas. Drawing their strength from "custom and tradition," such bodies steeped in prejudice, ignorance and superstition and wholly out of tune with the modern values of dignity and equality, have played havoc with the lives of people."

The Telegraph alone dared to touch upon the taboo issue, a uniform civil code. " By allowing the whole idea of a uniform civil code to get identified with the lowest kind of communal politics, the affirmation of a distinctly "Muslim" identity through a vengefully reactionary interpretation of the sharia becomes the way of asserting a difference threatened by majoritarian interests. In countries where this pressure does not exist, people have begun to interpret and live with the same set of laws in a far more liberal and flexible way."

The Tribune, as befits a paper with a largely Punjabi readership, made a comparison with Pakistan. "On both sides of the Indo-Pak divide the plight of woman is the subject of a raging debate. While the cause in India is the sexual abuse of 25-year-old Imrana by her father-in-law in her village house, in Pakistan the reason is the rape of Mukhtar Mai by a group of men following a village panchayat`s verdict in a case involving her brother. Somehow, the Pakistani woman has emerged a human rights activist, a heroine of a kind, but Imrana`s fate is hanging in the balance."

It alone, too, commented on the politicians. "Such tragic situations also provide an opportunity to politicians to play their vote-bank card. That is why UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh says that "dharma gurus" of Muslims are right. But the BJP is of the view that `the Imrana case gives Indian society an opportunity to pause, think and reassert the need for personal law reforms in Islam`. Surprisingly, the Congress has refused to comment on the social tragedy."

Quite right.




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