OF IMRANA’S, DIKTATS AND THE CONTROL OF COMMUNITIES ON WOMEN’S LIVES
Newsletter May - Aug 2005
For decades, the women’s movement has fought to break the silence on violence against women inside and outside the home, to get its many forms recognised by society and the law, and to fight for redressal and justice. Yet every once in a while, comes along a chilling reminder of just how long and difficult our struggle remains. And the case of Imrana in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh is just that. A call for us to confront the new challenges and prepare for even greater obstacles in our effort to create a world free of violence and injustice.
On the night of June 3, 2005, 28 year old Imrana was raped at gunpoint by her father-in-law, Ali Mohammed. Immediately, Imrana told her mother-in-law and sister-in-law who emotionally supported her, but suggested she stay silent about the crime. Yet she broke down and told her maternal sister-in-law the entire story a day later. Enraged, her brothers rushed to the village and beat up the father-in-law. Immediately, the whole village got involved, and Imrana’s natal family went to the community panchayat to seek justice. Much to their horror, they found that the panchayat, led by the local clergy, declared that the rape had made Imrana corrupted or forbidden (haraam) for her husband, Noor Ilahi, and she could therefore no longer live with him. Moreover, they decreed that since she had had ‘sexual contact’ with the rapist, she would now have to marry him! Aghast, her family appealed to the Islamic seminary of Darul Uloom Deoband, only to find this horrific ‘verdict’ confirmed as a so-called fatwa or diktat.
But this has only been the start of the injustice against Imrana. For, as in the case of Shahnaz Shaikh, Shah Bano and Gudiya before her, Imrana’s fight too has become mired in Hindu-Muslim debates, the question of Muslim Personal Law versus a Uniform Civil Code and blatant political opportunism. But at the same time, it is evidence of the increasing hold of community and the clergy over women’s lives. A hold that is becoming fiercer as communities, especially minorities, become increasingly insular and insecure in the face of majority fundamentalism - which until recently had legitimacy in the central government, and still continues to do so in some states. And as usual, lost in the midst of all this, are key questions on women’s rights: in this case, the central issue of violence and the need to ensure justice for Imrana.
COMMUNITY PANCHAYATS vs THE STATE… WHO RULES?
In recent times, we have seen caste and community panchayats (extra judicial authorities, often called cultural courts) from all religious backgrounds exercise immense control over communities and pose a challenge to laws of justice and the role of state. In October 2004, a young couple called Rampal and Sonia from Assanda village in Jhajjar district of Haryana, had to flee for their lives, when the community panchayat ordered them to dissolve their marriage, declare themselves brother-and-sister, and abort Sonia’s pregnancy, since they belonged to the same ‘gotra’! And then there was the case of Gudiya, forced by the community panchayat to return to her first husband thought to be missing or dead for several years, despite the fact that she was re-married and pregnant by then.
The joint statement by women’s groups (signatories below) expressing outrage against the developments in Imrana’s case stated, “[there is always]… the age-old excuse of ‘religion and tradition’ used by regressive forces to oppress, control, commit and justify violence on women. This, contrary to the current public discourse is not exclusive to the Muslim community. From ‘Sati’ to the recent ‘verdicts’ of caste and community panchayats penalizing women with rape, chopping off their noses, stripping and parading, killing, and other such barbarisms are just a few cases in point. But a key question is: What are these ‘community panchayats’? What sanction do they have to exercise virtually life-and-death powers? And can their authority supersede that of the state?
Writing to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, women’s groups stated unequivocally that “we are absolutely appalled by your statement that, ‘the decision by religious leaders must have been well thought out.’ In doing so, you, as the Chief Minister of the state, have failed to stand by victim, undermined the seriousness of the crime, and revealed your lack of commitment to women’s rights.” Hence representatives of about 30 women’s groups, democratic rights groups and others also met with the Resident Commissioner of Uttar Pradesh in Delhi, Mr Ajit Seth, to demand that Chief Minister immediately retract his objectionable statement, ensure that it does not compromise the process of justice and instead extend full state support for Imrana. But in our meeting, Mr Seth merely claimed that the state government was ‘sensitive to the issue’ and doing ‘all that was necessary’. Yet, he could cite no concrete measures besides the fact that the accused was already in judicial custody.
NOT A QUESTION OF RELIGIOUS IDENTITY; A QUESTION OF VIOLENCE
In the current public debate, Imrana’s case seems to have been simply reduced to a matter of Muslim Personal Law. Reams of newsprint and television time, not to mention public debate, have focussed on ‘what the Shariat really says.’ Does the rape affect Imrana’s conjugal rights? Is there any justice in punishing the victim in accordance with the Shariat, when the perpetrator of the crime cannot be punished under it i.e. stoned in public, since crimes like rape are not matters of personal law but come under the Indian Penal Code.
Members of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) - the umbrella organisation that has assumed a social role of the torchbearers of Muslim Personal Law and its interpretations - like Naseem Iqtedar Ali Khan, publicly supported the diktat. Then the AIMPLB, along with the Jamaat-E-Islami, sent an all-male fact-finding team to ‘investigate the case’, and came back claiming that Imrana could not have been raped… supposedly on the grounds that there is not enough space, privacy, or evidence of struggle by Imrana!
Appalled at this turn of events, women’s groups in Delhi went to confront the AIMPLB. But in our meeting, spokesperson Mr M.A.R. Quraishi of the AIMPLB, failed to make a distinction between rape and ‘sexual contact’. Despite claiming that they had ‘no position’ on the matter, he repeatedly said that “Imrana is now ‘haraam’ for her husband” but said that any discussion of her ‘becoming his mother’ or having to marry her rapist were anti-Islam. He refused to engage with issues of justice saying that was a matter for the courts, while failing to take any responsibility for the so-called fact finding team of the AIMPLB and the Jamaat-E-Islami. He also did not express any concern for Imrana’s safety or well-being, saying that was the concern of her natal family. And as for her own choice and will in the matter, he used Imrana’s statement to the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Girija Vyas, that “she didn’t want to be subjected to any more public attention, and would abide by the Shariat” to challenge our right to intervene. In doing so, Mr Quraishi turned a blind eye to Imrana’s repeated demands for punishment for the rapist, even as he ignored the pain and trauma she has been subjected to, not just by the rape, but also in being torn away from her husband and marital home, in having to deal with the responsibility of five children and now, in suddenly having turned into a liability for her brothers. His prime concern seemed to be to stave off the efforts by the Hindu right wing to turn Imrana’s case into yet another excuse to impose a Uniform Civil Code that would threaten the cultural and religious basis of the Muslim community in India.
In another joint statement of women’s groups (signatories below), addressed to the AIMPLB, we said, “There have been regressive discussions among politicians, elected members, community leaders and the media around what is essentially a case of violence against women, irrespective of religious, caste or community identity. Additionally disturbing have been attempts to turn this case into a Uniform Civil Code vs Muslim Personal laws debate... Clearly your all-male ‘fact-finding’ team is unaware that in case after case of rape, it has been amply proven that none of the grounds mentioned in their ‘findings’ are valid... In doing so, the AIMPLB has ‘passed judgment’ on the case before the law can take its course. Hence the AIMPLB has failed to stand by Imrana and her hopes for justice, undermined the seriousness of the crime committed, strengthened perpetrators of such crimes and revealed your lack of commitment to women’s rights.”
While as women’s groups, we insisted that Imrana’s case is primarily one of violence and of personal law, voices of dissent also arose loud and clear from within the Muslim community. Days after the case grabbed national attention, the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board in Lucknow boldly challenged claims that the Shariat and other holy books sanction such violence and discrimination. They held an Open Forum where woman after woman spoke loud and clear that if anyone was haraam, it was the rapist, and Imrana’s dignity and her right to stay within her marriage was non-retractable by anyone except her and her husband! If anything, she should be supported in her struggle to do so, they said. In addition have been other eminent voices like the Chairperson of Tamil Nadu Wakf Board, Bader Sayeed who has termed the entire episode a mockery of the religion. “It is very sad that the religion had been completely misunderstood by those who passed the verdict. It just shows that some religious leaders still want control over women,” she said.
A SAGA OF INJUSTICE BARELY BEGUN
The conservatism of the clergy and its hold over the community, the collusion of the state with regressive forces, the relentless glare of the media, eager to keep the fires of controversy raging for one more ‘hot’ story... all of these have been compounded by the brazen politicisation of the case, with political parties either maintaining a cautious silence or using the opportunity to gain political mileage on both ends of the spectrum. So once again, right wing Hindu parties like the BJP have been using the case as one more occasion to malign Muslims as an ‘outdated, barbaric community’ that can only be ‘civilised’ by their ‘Uniform Civil Code’ (read: Hindu Code). Meanwhile Imrana awaits the fatwa from the Darul Uloom Deoband. But given the public attention that the case has generated, it will probably never be delivered to her formally, yet the sad truth is that it has already been socially implemented. Today, Imrana is separated from her husband, who still fears for his life for trying to defy the fatwa. And she is back with her brothers in her natal village, sharing their meagre means with her five children.
When activists in Uttar Pradesh first went to the government seeking justice for Imrana, they were told with utter indifference that “This is your internal (i.e. Muslim) matter, go to your leaders.” Without the public outcry, it is unlikely that Imrana’s FIR would have been registered, her medical tests conducted, Ali Mohammed kept in judicial custody, his first bail application be rejected by the lower courts, or the next one be scheduled promptly in a matter of weeks. The National Commission for Women, after its visit to the area, has demanded that Imrana’s case be put on the fast track, but it is an unlikely possibility without additional intervention and pressure from women’s groups. Equally critical is the need to counter the further communalisation of the issue, the propaganda that such conservatism is the preserve of the Muslims alone… a public discourse that only serves to threaten their vulnerability in these communalised times, leading inevitably to further shrinking of spaces for women.
Demanding accountability from the state towards victims of such violence. Countering the power of regressive forces. Devising ways to support and help survivors of violence like Imrana. Confronting the propaganda of those eager to make political capital out of human tragedies. And countering the indifference of the bureaucracy only too happy to marginalise minority communities further by calling such cases ‘internal matters’. All these must be complemented by a parallel effort on the part of women’s groups to deepen our understanding of how communities control women’s lives in the name of tradition, custom and identity. Those are the many challenges ahead. Only in confronting them effectively can we hope for a world where no woman has to suffer such injustice. Or else, it should come as no surprise to us if women like Imrana go back to being silent, or lose courage in their battle for justice.
Statement ‘Condemning The Politicisation Of The Rape Of Imrana. Condemning The Silence On Violence Against Women.’ Dated 4 July 2005. Signed By Anhad, Aiprf, Cadam, Crea, Forces, Human Rights Law Network, Jagori, Maati, Uttaranchal, National Federation Of Indian Women, Nirantar, Partners For Law In Development, Rahi Foundation, Saheli, Sama, Delhi, Stree Adhikar Sangathan, Women’s Research And Action Group, and Ywca in Delhi; Akshara, Cehat, Forum Against Oppression Of Women, and Lesbians And Bisexuals In Action, Vacha in Mumbai; Astitva, Health Watch, Kriti Resource Centre, Maswa, and Sahayog in Uttar Pradesh; Swayam in Kolkata, Sahiyar Stree Sangathan in Vadodara, Sakhi in Kerala and individuals like Dr. Vandana Prasad, Farah Naqvi And Jean Dreze. ANKUR, Delhi ; ASTITVA, Uttar Pradesh; CORE, Manipur; ANHAD, Delhi; CEHAT, Mumbai; CREA, Delhi; DALIT WOMEN’S COLLECTIVE, Tamil Nadu; HEALTH WATCH, Uttar Pradesh; HUMAN RIGHTS LAW NETWORK; INSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL DEMOCRACY, Delhi; JAGORI, Delhi; JHUMUR, Kolkata; MAATI, Uttaranchal; NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDIAN WOMEN, Delhi; NIRANTAR, Delhi; PARTNERS FOR LAW IN DEVELOPMENT, Delhi; PRISM, Delhi; SAHELI, Delhi; SAMA, Delhi; SHRUTI, Delhi; STREE ADHIKAR SANGATHAN, Delhi; SWAYAM, Kolkata; TEHREEK, Uttar Pradesh; WOMEN’S CENTRE, Mumbai; WOMEN’S COLLECTIVE, Tamil Nadu