A few months ago, I wrote a polemic for a university course. Today I want to publish it on my blog because I think a lot more Muslim women need to know about this. It is rather long—but worth a read.
The Islamic Nikahnama (pre-nuptial agreement) safeguards a lot of your rights as women – and yet according to The Telegraph Calcutta, you are most likely to ignore what it says. Read on to find out why it is of utmost importance to pay close attention to what you sign on and how not doing so adversely affects you. Some names of women have been changed to keep their anonymity intact.
In April 2005, the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board (AIMPWLB) adopted a “Shari’a Nikahnama.” The move came as a reformation of the previous Nikahnama that did not safeguard Muslim women’s rights in a marriage. The AIMPWLB claimed that “that the new Nikahnama is strictly in accordance with the tenets of Islam, which clearly prohibit any kind of harassment or oppression of a married woman by her husband.” Thus, a Muslim woman would be able to ask for dissolution of marriage if her husband had an illicit relationship with another woman, part of 25 other guidelines for marital equality and divorce. Extra clauses could also be added; one of the most important being that a man may not take another wife while he is still married to his first wife. This is debatable – whether or not one can take away from a man what Islamically can be his right, but the point I make by mentioning this is that such issues (and its solutions) are up for discussion.
This new Nikahnama became the model pre-nuptial that most Muslim personal law boards across India accepted and implemented. But how many of us women are aware that these rights have been sanctioned since Islam established itself in the 7th century? How many of us women are aware that these rights are enshrined not only in the religious books but also the Indian Civil Law that protects Muslim women’s rights? In fact, a majority of us do not even bother to find out what we may ask for in the Nikahnama. Three years after its initial implementation, The Telegraph Calcutta reported that a huge chunk of Muslim women were not only not aware of their rights, but also that they essentially never read their Nikahnama before signing it! Yes, there are women who are duped into signing unfair Nikahnamas because they cannot read at all, but the real concern lies with us women who are educated, who claim to live a so called “feminist life” – and yet signed on that dotted line without even glancing through the meticulously crafted pre-nuptial. Ruhi Hussain is one such example. A 43 year-old homemaker, Ruhi admits that she never read her nikahnama at all. In spite of achieving a bio-tech degree from a Hyderabad-based college, Ruhi was relegated to the same sphere of ignorance: she never cared for what she was guaranteed. She says, “I have realized that certain clauses can be inserted to protect one’s rights, and I will ensure that my daughter includes these conditions in her nikahnama.”
Ruhi is not the only woman to feel so. In an interview with Maryam Iftikhar, the 33 year old MBA graduate said that she regrets not reading her pre-nuptials before signing them. Of course, we would rather regret than make careful choices. Iftikhar says, “When I started living with my in-laws, I realized that we had too many differences to live together. There was no privacy at all, and I was always being taunted at for not bringing in as much dowry as my sister-in-law did. First of all, I didn’t even know I could legally ask to live separately; away from my in-laws. Not only that, I did not even know that I could have specifically mentioned in my nikahnama that I wanted to live alone with my husband. I didn’t even know that I can ask for khula based on the dowry demand.” Why is it that educated Muslim women have no clue about what their rights are in a marriage? It is almost distressing to think that a woman would give her entire life away to man without even thinking about what rights she may have over him. Not just as a wife, but also as a mother.
Did you know that the year 1978 was historical year for Muslim women in India? Shah Bano stands as an idol for Muslim women who want rights as mothers. Shah Bano Begum, a 62 year old woman who had been divorced by Mohammad Ahmad Khan, had successfully won a court case against him.
He had mistreated her, gotten married to another woman, and subsequently uttered the words talaq that nullified their marriage. When she asked for alimony to look after their five children, he refused saying he had no obligation to do so – because he had already divorced her. After a long drawn court case, Khan was eventually ordered to pay Begum her dues.
This is regarded as a landmark case in Indian history, because it resulted in the Supreme Court striking off The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986 – which, ironically, protected men’s rights rather than women’s. This resulted in the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) making changes in the Nikahnama, but important clauses about khula and alimony remained at large. This is how the nikahnama came to be changed in April 2005 as mentioned earlier. Do you see what a long drawn court case it will be, if you do not mention important clauses in your pre-nuptials? Or do you believe that you have all the necessary strength like Shah Bano Begum to fight one? Perhaps not.
Still, it is understandable to some extent why you as a bride-to-be may not bother to check the papers before you tie the knot. First of all, the papers are usually brought to you on the day of the nikah, so there is understandable hesitation: you family may be hovering over you, the Qazi may have other appointments, and of course the guests are waiting to join the dinner table. You may be tired from all the day’s work – coming back from the salon, getting into your wedding dress, and applying make-up. Many times, even in the newly appointed Nikahnama, the Qazi may just strike off all “unnecessary” clauses and just fill up the meher section before handing over the pen to you.
And here’s what happens if you do not bother to take control of your rights. You may never receive the meher you asked for. You may not be qualified to receive alimony or child custody in case you get divorced. Sometimes, your (ex) husband may choose not to pay for child support – even though the father is majorly responsible for the children’s livelihood by default in Islam. He can override this responsibility by going to a civil court and successfully winning his case – all if you do not explicitly mention child support in the event of divorce in your nikahnama.
Your nikahnama both protects you from injustice and at the same time ensures that you are adequately accounted for if you ever be mistreated. Yes, you can be mistreated in several ways. Not being allowed to visit your parents, not being allowed to work, demanding dowry, non-payment of meher, adultery by your husband, pressure by in-laws to have children – these are all extreme cases of mistreatment and gross violations of trust. Many times, smart and educated young women find out only after marriage that the husband is an alcoholic or has other similar habits which are absolutely unacceptable. But sometimes it can be very subtle. Snide remarks about the way you handle your child, or how you are not as educated as the other daughter-in-law, or even blaming the occurrence of some calamities on you; the list is endless. Remember, you are the mother of your child, and Islam guarantees you its primary responsibility to the extent that Prophet Muhammad said, “Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother.” And because motherhood begins after marriage for most Muslim women, it is important that you go about it very carefully and with precaution.
The first step in doing so is to make sure you receive the nikahnama a few weeks before you actually sign it. This will give you time to go over the details, some of which are so meticulously worded, that you may need an Imam or a Shari’a lawyer to help you understand the clauses better. For example, the law stating a wife’s share of property after her husband’s death is also mentioned in the nikahnama. This can get a little confusing if you both have children from previous marriages, or if he has another living wife. You must get these issues sorted out before you make any arrangements for your wedding. Request your family and husband-to-be to sit down and have an honest discussion over this important piece of paper – before the guests arrive and begin clicking selfies with you. In the end, the choice is entirely yours.