Murshidabad: Hena Khatun’s bridal sari is now a stark reminder of a short lived marriage.
She was married at the age of 14 to a mason in Murshidabad district, West Bengal. Her husband sent her back to her parents’ home after two months. She was too young to understand and articulate her pain.
Two years later, at the age of 16, Hena was divorced by her husband through oral triple talaq – a system of instant divorce. Muslim personal law allows the husband to divorce his wife by uttering the word talaq thrice. A similar right does not exist for the woman.
Hena said, “He was having an affair with another girl. My parents had so much hope that we would be happy. ”
Her bridal sari is the only item that she was able to recover from her husband’s house.
“My parents gave them Rs 1 lakh and they did not return it. They said if we dared to file a case, we would lose any chance of getting back the money,” says she.
Hena is now 17. She has rejoined school, and studies in class 9.
Her schoolmate Seema Khatun, who is from the same village, Sarangpur, in Murshidabad district, is another victim of the practice of instant divorce.
“My husband said he didn’t want anything. But later he got greedy. My in-laws began to torture me. Seeing my suffering, my father brought me back home. I decided to study and had rejoined school when my divorce happened. I could not clear my exams because of the stress,” she says.
The two girls hope by completing their education they can fend for themselves. Their fathers work as agricultural labour and own no land. Their poverty makes them vulnerable to traffickers who dupe girls like them with the promise of marriage or a job.
Women activists are giving voice to women whose lives were destroyed after they were given oral triple talaq. In every village there are 10 to 15 women who have been divorced or driven out of their marital homes.
Khadija Banu, secretary of the Rokeya Nari Unnayan Samiti, says triple talaq and polygamy must be declared unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court recently admitted a petition by a Muslim woman, Shayara Bano, stating that polygamy and oral triple talaq violate fundamental human rights, and hence are unconstitutional.
Several Islamic countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia have banned triple talaq.
In India, political parties have been reluctant to take up this controversial issue, fearing it would upset clerics and influential Muslim organisations. Muslims make up 14 percent of the population in the country and are a powerful vote bank. In West Bengal, Muslims comprise 27 per cent of the population.
A majority of the divorcees were married as children and it is common to find they have only studied till class 8. Clearly it compounds their feeling of disempowerment.
Uliya Khatoon, 27, has a disability. Her feet were malformed at birth. But instead of giving her special care, her husband divorced her three years after marriage.
“After my husband remarried, he beat me up and threw me out of the house,” she says. Ms Khatoon returned with her two year old son to her parents’ home. Her brothers gave her a small kuchcha or temporary room where they have been staying for the last eight years.
She does not get any maintenance from her former husband, she gets a disability pension of Rs 600 a month from the government.
“I face problems in paying for my son’s education, to buy my clothes and even to buy food. From spinning yarn, I earn about Rs 20 a day. I would like the government to give me assistance. I am expecting it to give me a house.”
She has been selected as a beneficiary of the Gitanjali scheme for housing economically weaker sections, including the minority community. It entitles her to a sum of Rs 70,000.
Ms Bhanu says there are a number of schemes that could help destitute women, but they are either unaware of these or do not know how to access them.
She adds, “There are schemes as well as scholarships for the minority sections, such as the Muslim Women Empowerment Scheme. Loans with minimal interest are given. The problem actually is due to the politics amongst those who are supposed provide the loans. The Panchayat gives money to people aligned with them and leaves out the most vulnerable.”
According to Dilruba Sarkar, Secretary, Arena NGO, “The government needs to do more monitoring as well as more awareness building. Murshidabad is a Muslim dominated district. It has the maximum number of cases of trafficking, of child marriage and child labour. But even after 68 years of independence, there is little awareness creation at the grassroot level.”
In this election season, the question is will these women’s challenges be on the political radar?