NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Muslim women fighting to ban "triple talaq" divorce and polygamy from family civil law in India's top court condemned on Tuesday justifications given by Islamic clerics as "medieval" and "reeking of sexism".
India's Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition filed by women's rights activists who want the judiciary to declare triple talaq - where Muslim men can divorce by simply stating their intention three times verbally - as unconstitutional.
The Indian constitution allows most religions, including Muslims - the biggest religious minority group - to regulate matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance through their own civil code.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), a non-governmental body which oversees the application of Muslim personal law, opposes any ban on triple talaq and polygamy.
It told the court on Friday that triple talaq was necessary, saying men have greater reasoning power compared to women, and that a man giving triple talaq to his wife was a better option than murdering her or burning her alive.
The AIMPLB also argued that polygamy was a "social need" and a "blessing" as a lawful second wife was better than an unlawful mistress and added that it gave divorced or widowed women more opportunity to remarry.
"Muslim women in India have suffered because of triple talaq where arbitrary divorces declared over postcards or telegrams have been sustained," said campaign group Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), or the India Muslim Women's Movement.
"AIMPLB's argument that a Muslim man can delegate his power of pronouncing talaq to his wife is laughable – this can hardly be expected to happen in real life if the wife wants a divorce but husband doesn't," it said in a statement on Tuesday.
The group said the AIMPLB's justification for polygamy was "bizarre" as it had suggested the practice of a man having up to four wives stemmed from a concern and sympathy for women.
"The truth is Muslim personal laws - like other religious laws - flow from patriarchy and relegate women to second class status," said the BMMA.
It said triple talaq had been banned in more than 20 Muslim-majority countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh while polygamy was prohibited in Turkey and Turkmenistan among other countries.
Muslims make up more than 13 percent of the country's 1.2 billion people, yet they are among some of the most marginalised communities.
Social indicators amongst Muslim women such as literacy, mortality and employment rates are lower than the national average, say activists.
Triple talaq is unilateral, arbitrary and contravenes both the constitution and the principles of gender justice in Islam, BMMA said. In India, a secular democracy, religious laws could not overwrite the constitutional right to equality, it added.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla. Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)