From her home in the Indian city of Bhopal, Safia Akhtar listens in on her neighbors’ most intimate dramas.
As often as three times a week, women pass through her door to complain of deceitful husbands, evil in-laws, abandonment, and abuse. Akhtar, a grandmother, hears from both sides of each dispute before dispensing justice, according to the teachings of the Quran.
She is a female Sharia judge.
There are few in India, but that is changing as a movement of Muslim women, fed up with misogynist practices in their communities, take matters of Islamic justice into their hands.
Zakia Soman, a prominent activist, is among the women leading the charge. Her organization, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, or BMMA, has been fighting for Muslim women’s rights for nearly a decade and is now training what it says is India’s first class of female “qazis”— Islamic judges who oversee marriage, divorce, and other personal matters in Muslim communities. Akhtar is part of the inaugural class of 30 women.
“There is now an alternative voice within India’s Muslim community which is demanding justice and equality for women. And the most important thing is that more and more Muslim women are coming forward in support of [this change],” Soman said.
Though India is a secular democracy, the government allows each religious group to manage its community’s personal affairs, like marriage, divorce, and inheritance. For India’s nearly 180 million Muslims—India’s largest minority group and the largest population of Muslims in any country besides Indonesia—these matters are often settled by male qazis who, Soman argues, perpetuate “barbaric” and “un-Quranic” practices like polygamy and child marriage.
Soman and her colleagues have witnessed the devastating consequences of these customs and concluded that the problems that plague India’s Muslim women have nothing to do with Islam—but with men.
“The Quran has provided gender justice to women,” Soman said, arguing that the most notorious anti-women practices associated with Islam are “nowhere sanctioned in the Quran.”
Aiming to rebalance the gender scales, Soman and her colleagues launched the Darul Uloom Niswaan, an Islamic theology center offering a qazi training program for women, which started last year.
The yearlong program begins with a deep dive into the country’s laws and constitution with a special focus on legal protections for minorities and women. It then moves on to the study of Islam and the Quran “from a humanist and gender-just perspective.”
“We take them through how the entire affair of interpreting the Quran and laying down the Islamic principles has been in the hands of male scholars. We then focus on verses pertaining to women—about marriage, divorce, polygamy, guardianship, a woman’s [role] in society—and verses of the Quran that put across very clearly that men and women are equal in the eyes of Allah,” Soman said.
By the end of the year, a diverse group of women from 10 states—a third of whom completed their formal educations and four of whom have master’s degrees—will finish their training and, if they haven’t started already, begin conducting marriages and settling domestic disputes.
The initiative is not without controversy. Akhtar, a longtime advocate for women’s rights, has been likened in local media to Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin, a feminist Bangladeshi writer in exile who fled death threats for her criticism of Islam. “Certain factions of society say female qazis should not be part of Islam and that this is un-Islamic and we should be thrown out,” Akhtar said. While she says she does not fear for her safety “yet,” she has stirred up angry reactions in the press.
“It’s a new concept for most of the Muslims in this city, because they have never seen female qazis. They are used to seeing a man with a beard and a turban as a qazi, so it was a shocker for a lot of people,” her son, Saud Akhtar, said.
The criticism doesn’t only come from hardline clerics and their followers, but also from proponents of a strictly secular system that eliminates India’s “parallel judicial system.”
“India must have one constitution, and only those judges and courts that work under it,” wrote Tufail Ahmad, author of Jihadist Threat to India: The Case for Islamic Reformation by an Indian Muslim, adding that “in the current era, Muslim women’s liberty cannot be subject to the [Quran].”
Yet Soman argues that the overwhelming majority of nearly 5,000 Muslim women her organization surveyed across the country in 2013 said they wanted qazis to maintain a judicial role in family affairs. Even more—nearly 90 percent—said they wanted the system standardized and reformed with practices like polygamy forbidden.
The BMMA’s work was further validated this summer when it released a petition calling for the abolishment of “instant” triple-talaq divorce, a contested Islamic practice, in which a man—and only a man—divorces his spouse by simply repeating the word “talaq” Arabic for “divorce,” three times in a row.
The petition racked up more than 50,000 signatures from Muslim women across the country, prompting a separate declaration of support from Muslim men, signed by everyone from students to Bollywood stars.
“A lot of ordinary Muslims understand that there is gender justice in the religion and it is a patriarchal misinterpretation which has come in the way of that,” Soman said, noting that she was inundated over the summer with phone calls and messages of support.
The success of the BMMA’s various initiatives, especially the training of female qazis, will depend on the level of acceptance they receive at the local level. There is no standardized qazi training or certification system recognized universally among India’s Muslims. The acceptance of a person as a qazi is ultimately subjective. “The authority comes socially,” Soman said.
This flexibility allowed Akhtar to begin practicing as a qazi even before she began her training course. After years of Quranic study and activism with the BMMA, she was confident enough to offer her services to settle disputes.
Her new training is only adding to her credibility. The 65-year-old says she now sees between 10 to 15 cases a month that illustrate to her the “misconceptions in society about Sharia law.”
Recently, for example, a woman sought her help after her husband divorced her while she was asleep. “When she got up, her in-laws informed her, ‘You are no longer the wife of our son because when you were sleeping he gave you talaq,’” Akhtar explained. “There was no witness, nothing.” Akhtar ruled the divorce invalid, citing the more common Quranic interpretation that requires three months before a divorce is finalized, with an eye toward reconciliation.
She also recently settled cases of triple-talaq by social media (not valid, she ruled) and another in which a man refused to give his ex-wife any financial support following their divorce. Akhtar said she helped the woman secure 1 million rupees (roughly $15,000) in compensation.
No one is bound by her decisions. Families are ultimately free to reject her rulings and seek a second opinion somewhere else, whether within the country’s legal system or by another religious authority whose interpretation might suit them more. But Akhtar and Soman are both confident that the simple presence of female qazis in Indian society will help move the gender justice dial in the right direction.