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Why We Need A Uniform Civil Code in India?

by Shabana Azmi, 8 August 2005

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The Times of India, 7 July 2005

Women, Stand Up For Your Rights:

The real reason why we need a uniform civil code

Let’s face it. For all the progress that is claimed to have been made in India, the fact remains that ours is a patriarchal society in which the
woman counts for very little. It could be Imrana, Indira or Irene, the manifestations could be varied, but the real malaise is that violence against women — physical, emotional and verbal — has the tacit approval of society. This is a social evil that needs to be eliminated through every channel available — through changes in legislation, by public discourse, via civil society participation and of course, political will. For far too long women have been victimised and justice has been denied to them under the pretence of personal law. To make matters worse, caste panchayats churn out verdicts that violate the law of the land, right under our noses, and everyone carries on as if it is business as usual. Are we going to allow an alternative judicial system? Ex-attorney general Soli Sorabjee has said: "Personal laws do not enjoy any immunity from compliance with constitutional obligations guaranteeing fundamental rights. Besides, one of the fundamental duties prescribed by the Constitution is to ’renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women’ under Article 51 A (e)". What is being done about this?

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) becomes suspect when it asks for a uniform civil code because it raises this issue only when a Muslim woman’s misfortune is highlighted in media. Had the BJP shown the same alacrity in condemning the mass rapes in Gujarat or the various instances of sati, or the sorry plight of Hindu widows in Varanasi and Vrindavan, they would not encounter such cynicism. Let us be reminded that in the 1950s, when the Hindu code Bill was introduced, it was the Jan Sangh that opposed it tooth and nail. With the exception of the Left, the ’secular’ political parties are either giving a clean chit to mullahs or being ambiguous, at best making ineffectual noises in the mistaken notion that fundamentalists hold sway on Muslims.

Political parties certainly have a right to protect their constituencies; where they err is in believing that their security lies in appeasing the most regressive sections of the vote bank. However, the tide has changed since the infamous Shah Bano case. The obscurantist brigade is coming under question, and women are particularly angry. Political parties need to read the writing on the wall and strengthen the hands of women who are asking for reforms, instead of appeasing retrograde sections of the community. Otherwise they will lose the support base they claim to nurture.

In the wake of the Imrana case I have been among Muslim women working at the grass roots. It is heartening to meet burqa -clad women who swear allegiance to Islam and the Qur’an but are unequivocal in their refusal to accept the retrograde decrees of clerics. That the Darululum Deoband backtracked in the Imrana case (they now claim no fatwa was issued) is in no small measure due to the outcry from within the Muslim community
. In case after case, the clergy, instead of acting with justice and compassion towards women, seeks only to exercise its writ with coercion. When decrees made in the name of religion violate basic human dignity, they only expose religion to ridicule and make a laughing stock of the community.

It is in this context that we need to understand the issue of the uniform civil code. The time has come to place personal laws of all religions under a scanner and reject those laws that violate the Constitution. Personal laws of all religions discriminate against women on matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and so on. There is an urgent need to cull out the just and equitable laws of all religions and form a blueprint for a uniform civil code based on gender justice. The Hindu code cannot be applied uniformly to all religions. On the other hand, triple talaq would have to go, as would polygamy and all the advantages that accrue to Hindu undivided families in matters of property and inheritance.

The framers of our Constitution did not impose the uniform civil code because it was believed that there was insecurity within minorities and that with time they would grow in confidence and articulate the need for reforms within the community. Unfortunately, each time a communal riot takes place and the perpetrators go scot-free, it shatters the confidence of minorities and halts the process of reform. But 58 years is a long time for women to wait for gender justice. We need a debate on a uniform civil code not because it is a magic wand with which all ills that besiege women will disappear, not because it will lead to integration as the sangh parivar claims it will — unity need not imply a drab sameness — but because it will be an important step in freeing women from the shackles of a patriarchal society.

The writer is an actress and activist .