KASHIPUR, India – More than a year ago, the letter carrier handed the soft-spoken Shayara Bano a letter that would not only change her life but trigger a national storm about the rights of Muslim women in India.
In the letter, her husband wrote the words “I divorce you” three times.
That is all it took. Her 13-year marriage came to an end with that letter.
“One minute I was a married woman with two children. The next minute I became a divorced woman. I was not asked. I was not even present when he wrote the word ‘divorce,’ ” said the 35-year-old Shayara, who uses only one name, sitting in her hometown of Kashipur, in the foothills of the Himalayas. “What kind of a one-sided, unfair divorce is this?”
India allows communities to follow family laws that are governed by their religion. But the practice of what is known as triple talaq, or “the triple divorce,” among the country’s 170 million Muslims is one of the most controversial, because it allows a Muslim man to divorce his wife by merely uttering the word three times – sometimes even by Skype or email or text message.
After struggling to get justice at the local police station and in court for months, Shayara and her case reached India’s Supreme Court last year. She asked it to abolish the practice, pointing out that it has been reformed in many Muslim countries and is not integral to Islam.
In the past year, her personal pain and the lawsuit have energized the national debate about women’s status in Islam and the contentious quest for a modern civil law in a country with many religions. She also has been pitted against powerful religious clerics who say she is helping undermine religious freedom.
In recent months, Muslim leaders in her town have called Shayara a traitor and an agent of Hindu extremists. A prominent Muslim leader asked her to withdraw her case and become a martyr for the cause of Islam.
“We don’t regard her very well in the community. By going to the court, she has insulted Islam and ridiculed the divine law,” said Mufti Zulfiqar Khan Naeemi, who interprets Islamic law in Kashipur. “In Islam, if the word is uttered three times – instantly or over time – it is final.”
In her petition, Shayara asked the court to declare her divorce illegal and said the triple divorce practice treats women like “chattel.”
“Muslim women have their hands tied while the guillotine of divorce dangles, perpetually ready to drop at the whims of their husbands who enjoy undisputed power,” she says in the petition, which also asks the court to end polygamy among Muslim men.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a group that advocates for Islamic laws, responded in court that the religious laws of a community “cannot be rewritten in the name of social reform,” and said abolishing triple divorce coulddrive some husbands to murder their wives.
But Shayara’s petition has found widespread support among many Muslim women’s groups.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government told the court in October that the practice is incompatible with the constitution and cannot be regarded as an essential practice in Islam.
“What is the crime of my Muslim sisters that someone says ‘divorce’ over the phone and her life is destroyed?” said Modi at a public meeting in October. His Hindu nationalist group, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been campaigning to enact a uniform civil code for all Indians.
In October, the government asked citizens to give their opinions on having a common civil code that will address discrimination and “harmonize the various cultural practices.”
“The intention of this government is suspect, this is an assault on diversity. We were guaranteed religious freedom and we will fight to preserve and practice our culture, language and religion freely,” said Arshad Madani, the head of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, India’s largest Muslim group.
Shayara grew up with four other siblings on a military base in Kashipur, in a family that stayed away from displays of excessive religiosity.
“I did not send my children to a religious school, my daughters never wore a veil,” said her father, Iqbal Ahmed, 57, a clerk in the army. “I wanted them [to] think of themselves as free Indian citizens first, not just as Muslim women.”
A graduate in sociology, Shayara married a high school dropout in 2002. After two children, her husband made her go through six abortions, she said, pushing her into severe depression. She moved to her parents’ home in 2015 for psychological treatment.
“Just when I began to heal, I got the divorce letter,” Shayara said. In it, her husband complained about her relationship with his mother, and about what he called her un-Islamic ways. In court, he said that she is “dull in the head.”
“Whatever I did is valid and correct under Islam,” said her husband, Rizwan Ahmed, but he declined to discuss his reasons for the divorce. “Some women are strong and can handle the divorce. Some are weak.”
But that is not what Shayara is hearing.
“So many divorced women come to me, pour their woes and say you are very courageous,” she said. “I may not benefit personally. My marriage is over. But I don’t want other women to suffer anymore.”
India was at the cusp of a similar breakthrough more than three decades ago when another Muslim woman went to court asking for alimony. But the Congress party government at that time buckled under pressure from Muslim groups and overturned the Supreme Court verdict that allowed maintenance.
“Various governments in the past decades have pandered to the patriarchal elements in the community in the name of maintaining pluralism,” said Zakia Soman, who heads the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement. “This has deprived Muslim women of justice.”
In 2013, a national survey among Muslim women showed that more than 65 percent of respondents who were divorced said their husbands parted simply by uttering the word three times.
“The religious clerics have succeeded in making the Muslim masses believe that this practice is Islamic,” said Tahir Mahmood, former chief of the National Minorities Commission. “Nothing has been done to codify the Muslim law, so the varied interpretations and distortions by clerics prevail.”
But many are hopeful that the time is ripe to challenge orthodoxy. There have been unprecedented public conversations about women’s rights, mobility and safety in the past four years. New laws regarding sexual assault, workplace sexual harassment and acid-throwing have been passed.
“Shayara’s case has touched a raw nerve in the country. People can’t digest such things anymore,” said Balaji Srinivasan, her lawyer.
Shayara’s wedding photo album, titled “romantic moments,” collects dust in a corner of her home. She has other things on her mind now. She is trying to decide whether to study law or teach at a kindergarten. She wants to be with her estranged children, who are with her husband in another city.
Shayara said she has a recurring nightmare these days.
“I dream repeatedly that I am crying out loud, but there is no sound coming out of my throat. Nobody can hear me, no matter how loudly I shout,” she said.