Advocates for women’s rights are making waves again in India. The country’s first female qazis—judges in courts adhering to Islamic sharia law—have just begun settling family disputes through mediation and reconciliation. This comes after women’s rights groups successfully pushed for the banning of “triple talaq,” a long-disputed sharia policy that allowed men to divorce their wives through “instant divorce” by repeating “talaq” (Arabic for “divorce”) three times. India’s supreme court ruled the practice unconstitutional in August 2017.
Now, the first female sharia judges are working to bring fresh perspective to family mediations in hopes of further protecting women from unfair treatment in the home. Suriya Sheikh, one of the 15 women who recently graduated from qazi training, feels this kind of equality is logical.
“A man goes and says, ‘I want to divorce my wife,’ then the qazi—also with a man’s perspective—he signs off on the divorce. But these injustices happen with women, so why can’t we also become qazis?” Sheikh told Broadly.
Like many Muslim women in strict Indian households, Sheikh grew up unable to play outside, speak loudly, or wear perfume like the boys and men in her family were allowed to do. “What could I do?” Sheikh says she used to wonder. “It’s not like I chose to be born a woman.”
The strict rules weren’t the worst of it, though. Sheikh told Broadly she saw many women fall victim to the normalization of domestic violence. Not only were women abused, but it was also viewed as acceptable behavior. “I saw this in my community growing up,” Sheikh said, “so I started to feel like I don’t want to get married at all. Because all these problems arise after marriage.”
These kinds of experiences were motivation for all the women who went through qazi training, which was provided by Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a women’s empowerment organization. The class of 15 studied Indian law, the Quran, and women’s rights for three years before graduating in April.
Now, the women qazis work at BMMA, which offers seminars on women’s empowerment, group sessions where men and boys are welcome to discuss family issues, and arbitration sessions, which are handled by the qazis. While qazis don’t operate as a replacement for India’s secular legal courts, they arbitrate all marriages and divorces for the nation’s 172 million Muslims. Family disputes are settled this way—and until now, all qazis operated with only a male perspective.
Noorjehan Safia Niaz is a cofounder of the BMMA who also helped create the organization’s qazi training program. She told Broadly that while public discussion of education and women’s rights reform is positive, it is equally important to discuss “what happens to women within the four walls [of her household], the kinds of insecurities she faces from her very close relationships.”
“Creating that space for women is very important,” she said, so they “can negotiate and talk.…Here, no man decides.”