ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Until this week, a Muslim man in India could divorce his wife simply by saying the Arabic word for divorce three times. Not anymore. Now the custom is punishable with up to three years in prison. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in Mumbai and covering this story.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.
SHAPIRO: Lauren, what's the history of this? You could divorce your wife just by saying three times the word divorce, divorce, divorce in Arabic.
FRAYER: That's right, a Muslim man could. A Muslim woman could not. It didn't work the other way around. And that's one of the things that some people, especially women here, thought was unfair. The practice is called triple talaq. Talaq is the Arabic word for divorce. This goes back centuries, and a man would only have to say talaq, talaq, talaq, and his marriage is dissolved. And modern technology means you could even text it or say it over the phone for this to be valid.
India banned this because it was seen as unfair to Muslim women. Here is Zakia Soman. She's the head of a Muslim women's group, and she says that triple talaq gave all the power to the husband.
ZAKIA SOMAN: Between the husband and the wife, it is totally one-sided. The wives feelings are not heard. She's not given any hearing. She's not given any room for any kind of dialogue, any kind of negotiation.
FRAYER: So she says triple talaq, you know, left wives in the lurch without legal options, and so she campaigned for this new law.
SHAPIRO: India is, of course, a majority Hindu country. In majority Muslim countries, how common is this practice?
FRAYER: It used to be more common. Now, not so much. A lot of Muslim countries - Egypt, two of India's neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh - have banned it. Other countries, it's technically on the books but does require some sort of court intervention.
India has about 180 million Muslims. So even though they're a religious minority here - like you said, they're second to the Hindu population - this is still one of the biggest Muslim populations in the world. And India was one of the last countries to allow this.
SHAPIRO: Why did this tradition hang on in India? I mean, it is thought of as a secular, multi-faith democracy. It seems unusual that it would've persisted there.
FRAYER: Yeah, so India is all of those things. But it also has something called the Muslim Personal Law. And this is a separate law covering family matters for Muslims, and Muslim clerics had a hand in writing it. And the idea was to be sensitive to, you know, religious practices of India's biggest religious minority. So critics, though, say this ban amounts to state meddling in family law that should have been written by the community that it covers and not a majority Hindu Parliament over in the capital New Delhi.
They say it also sets up a double standard. I mean, if a Hindu man abandons his wife, for example, it's a civil case. She can file a civil lawsuit if she's been treated unfairly. But under this new law, if a Muslim man does the very same thing under triple talaq, it's a criminal offence. And he can go to jail for up to three years.
SHAPIRO: Are you saying that Muslims in India are divided over this move by Parliament?
FRAYER: Well, yes. A lot of Muslim clerics, who are men, are not happy. But a lot of Muslim women, for them, this is the result of a long fight. They got support from India's Supreme Court, which ruled two years ago that triple talaq violates the Indian Constitution.
The context here is interesting, though. Hindu nationalists are in power in India. And there is an atmosphere right now that is tense. There is fear that the rights of Muslims and other religious minorities are not being respected. In fact, we've had a spate of lynchings of Muslim men in the streets. And the government here has cast this as a human rights issue, that they're working for the rights of Muslim women. Muslim men, many of them see this as just another attack on their community.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai.
FRAYER: You're welcome.
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