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If The Government Wants Credit On Triple Talaq, It Deserves The Blame For Marital Rape

Yesterday, the Law Minister hailed the Supreme Court triple talaq verdict "a great dawn for women's empowerment". Two weeks ago, the government argued in the same court that when a husband rapes his wife, it's not rape.

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Ladies who live in India, did you wake up this morning feeling a little spurt of power fizz through your veins? Did you look out of your window and sense — over and above the slightly rancid smell of pollution, garbage and general apathy — that the world was changing? Don't say no. If you do, you'll just be breaking the heart of the Indian Law Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Speaking to the press after the announcement of the Supreme Court's decision striking down the practice of triple talaq, Prasad announced that "it's a great dawn for women's empowerment". He spoke about how the verdict marked "the beginning of the fight for equality of Muslim women."

Triple talaq is the fast-food version of a divorce. A husband can just say or write the word "talaq" thrice and be rid of his wife.

He wasn't the only one in a celebratory mood. The Indian internet has been jubilant since the verdict was announced, with everyone from the Left to the Right and even those in between putting up status messages that could easily be replaced with GIFs of happy dancing.

Some, like Prasad, expressed warm and fuzzy adoration for our dear leader, Narendra Modi, who has been vocal in his opposition to the arbitrary abandonment that comes with triple talaq — despite his own somewhat dubious marital history. Others applauded the complainants who have waited for years for the country's apex court to side with them and not their ex-husbands.

And why not? Triple talaq, formally known as talaq-ul-biddat, is an abhorrent practice that is the fast-food version of a divorce. A husband can just say or write the word "talaq" thrice and be rid of his wife — no waiting period, no settlement and no chance for the wife to discuss or negotiate the terms of the couple’s disengagement.

There are other kinds of divorce that are more considerate towards the wife’s needs and rights, so you’d think that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board would have the good sense to support those rather than triple talaq. Instead, it argued in favour of triple talaq, saying it prevented Muslim husbands from resorting to murdering their wives.

Eventually, it modified its position and said the practice was perhaps "not the best form of talaq". When the verdict was finally announced, it had come full circle, describing it as a victory for Muslim women.

So yes, even the Muslim Personal Law Board is on board with the Supreme Court verdict, which means it's worth celebrating, right?

Unfortunately, its hard to do the happy dance when you realise that the decision was far from unanimous. Two of the five judges presiding over the case, including the Chief Justice of India, felt no need to change the status quo. That's not so much a victory as a close shave.

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Two of the five judges presiding over the case, including the Chief Justice of India, felt no need to change the status quo. 

It’s worth keeping in mind that although triple talaq has now been struck down, it has not been banned. For that to happen, there needs to be a new law declaring it as criminal and for all of the government's chest-thumping, there's little chance that even this administration will risk the ire that would follow legislating on Muslim personal law.

As things stand, those found guilty of triple talaq will be charged with existing laws, which isn't necessarily a bad thing as lawyer and activist Flavia Agnes has argued in the past. It's a practical way forward in a country where court decisions take time to register. Take, for instance, Section 66A of the IT Act, which despite being annulled, was recently used by a local court in Hyderabad to convict a man. What chance would a new law attacking male privilege stand of being remembered by the courts and the police in a society that is as contemptuous of women's rights as ours is?

The fact is, contrary to Prasad's statements, the triple talaq verdict is not a new dawn for Indian women. Yes, it is a victory for the complainants and a hard-won victory at that, so let's all raise a toast to them. But it is a win whose benefits are limited and we don’t know what kind of impact this verdict will have at the ground level of lived reality. For triple talaq to genuinely become a thing of the past, the Centre and state governments will have to work at upholding this verdict.

Anyone who wishes to cheer for this government's commitment to gender equality is free to do so. If you can ignore how the government is casting itself as the saviour of Muslim women, despite having done precious little by way of actual constructive support, go right ahead. If it seems to you that all this jubilation is heartfelt and doesn't stink just a little bit of politicised power play, that's fantastic.

However, consider this: the Centre that's flaunting the verdict in the triple talaq case as its progressive, feminist badge is the same one that earlier this month argued that it's not a big deal if a husband rapes his teenaged wife. The Centre, and this government in particular, has repeatedly argued that acknowledging marital rape would weaken the institution of marriage.

The government seems to think that wives should just lie back, part their legs, and think of Indian culture, because that is how we as a community have defined marriage.

Last year, in the Rajya Sabha, Woman and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said, "It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/ illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat marriage as a sacrament etc." To praphrase: Wives should just lie back, part their legs, and think of Indian culture, because that is how we as a community have defined marriage.

If the government really wants to fight for gender equality in a way that has nothing to do with religion or religious practices, criminalising marital rape would be a fantastic follow-up to the triple talaq campaign. It affects every married woman in India regardless of who they worship.

It's surreal that we, in the twenty-first century while puffing our chests with pride at being global players, still have to debate wether marital rape exists as a concept. Across social divisions, we raise our daughters with the worldview that presents marriage as the norm. It's what we tell them is the thing to look forward to, to dream of — an institution that's built upon the premise that her consent is immaterial. The demand that marital rape be recognised as a crime is not a war cry as much as a plea to recognise the fact that a woman deserves the same fundamental rights as her male spouse.

This is the gender equation that this government (and those before it) have upheld while claiming to be supportive of women's rights. Think about that as you make your way through a day that has come following, in Prasad's words, "a great dawn for women's empowerment".

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Contact Deepanjana Pal at rega.jha+deepanjanapal@buzzfeed.com.

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