Some Muslim men have divorced their wives instantaneously by uttering the word talaq three times [File: Altaf Qadri/AP Photo]

New Delhi, India – India’s lower house of parliament has passed a bill that seeks to criminalise “triple talaq”, a style of instant divorce used by some in the Muslim community, after the country’s top court suspended the practice in August.

The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights of Marriage) bill 2017, introduced by the Narendra Modi government in the lower house of the Indian parliament on Thursday, could see men found guilty of divorcing their wives through triple talaq end up in jail for three years.

The bill, in part the result of decades of campaigning by Muslim women’s groups and victims, will now be presented in the upper house of parliament – meaning that it is on track to become law.

The practice allows Muslim men to divorce their wives instantaneously by uttering the word “talaq” three times. Under Islamic teaching, if the couple choose to re-marry, the wife must first wed another man and then divorce the second husband.

“In the republic of India, if a woman is suffering owing to the cruelty and inhumanity of triple talaq, should we remain silent? … Muslim-majority countries have regulated triple talaq in one go, why can’t we as a secular nation do it? We are not interfering in Sharia (Islamic law),” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, law minister, as he introduced the draft bill in the parliament in New Delhi.

The opposition Congress party backed the bill but has asked for some portions to be altered.

Several Muslimcountries have banned triple talaq, including Turkey, Qatar, Pakistan and conservative Saudi Arabia.

India, which is home to the world’s third-largest Muslim population, allows minorities to keep their personal laws.

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A violation of equality

Activists say the practice violates women’s rights and reinforces patriarchal hierarchies.

The Mumbai-based women’s rights group BMMA or Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement), was party to the legal battle and has chronicled more than 100 cases of triple talaq in India.

Founder Zakia Soman said the government decision was a step forward.

“We have been demanding this law for a very long time now,” she told Al Jazeera. “We are entitled by both the Indian constitution and our religion to have a family law which is gender-just.

“In most other Indian communities, the Hindus and the Christians, women have protection of law in the matters of marriage and family. It is only the Muslim women who have been denied legal justice so far.

“We are very clear. We are fighting patriarchy. We are fighting for women’s equality. We are fighting because we believe we are equal Muslims and equal citizens.”

Some Muslim activists say ‘triple talaq’ reinforces patriarchal hierarchies within marriage [File: Ajit Solanki/AP Photo]

In a BMMA survey last year, nearly 500 women said they had been divorced through triple talaq, with many receiving no alimony or compensation.

Shehnaz Malik, 33, was devastated after her husband used instant divorce to abandon her.

She told Al Jazeera in July: “You know, when someone’s lovingly built home collapses, there is so much pain.”

With her two daughters, she now lives in a tiny overcrowded house with her father in Noida on the outskirts of Delhi.

“I want my husband to send me monetary aid to help with my daughters’ education,” she said on Thursday.

‘I am opposed to this bill’

However, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a powerful Islamic body, said that the state has no right to interfere in religious matters.

“I am opposed to this bill because it violates the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution under article 14 and 15,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of the group.

Those articles prohibit discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, gender or place of birth.

“Secondly, if this bill is made into law, it will cause more injustice to Muslim women,” he told Al Jazeera, explaining that it would be difficult to prove triple talaq and unfair to place this burden on women.

Muslims comprise about 14 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people.

India’s ruling right-wing BJP has weighed in, with some accusing the party of using the issue to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment.

BJP minister Swami Prasad Maurya said in April that Muslims use personal laws to change wives and satisfy their “lust”.

Prime Minister Modi said earlier in 2017: “Reformers from within the community will save our Muslim mothers and sisters battling triple talaq. I appeal to the Muslim community: don’t politicise this issue.”

The government is touting the new proposed law which criminalises the practice as a boost for India’s 90 million Muslim women.

But some fear the court ruling and the new law would aid the right-wing Hindu nationalist government in its push for a uniform civil code, a poll promise.

A uniform civil code legislation would seek to end the application of religious laws to civil issues and would unify India’s personal laws that govern matters such as marriage, divorce, maintenance, adoption and inheritance.

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