In the west the liberal movement is demanding that polygamy should be made legal because people having multiple partners is a reality and the government has no business to tell people how they should form their civil unions. In India however the push is to ban things. Ban beef, ban polygamy, ban porn, ban dance bars, ban noodles. Just ban anything that the Hindutva elites are uncomfortable with.
Some people have a special obsession about freeing Muslim women who they say are being treated as slaves by evil Muslim men in India. If you believe the ongoing narrative you can be forgiven for thinking that most Muslim men in India have multiple wives who are being employed as baby producing machines so Muslims can beat the demographic advantage Hindus have over Muslims.
Forget the fact that the sex ratio is cruelly tilted towards Indian men due to rampant female foeticide in all communities including Muslims. There are simply not enough women to marry men. Polygamy is rare in India and not specific to Muslims.
BJP has always brought up three issues before elections. Abrogation of article 370 which gives special status to Kashmir, building a grand Ram Mandir at the same place where Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindutva extremists and the implementation of Uniform Civil Code. Abrogation of article 370 is about establishing complete Indian domination over Muslim majority Kashmir that went into dispute after partition and hence has special status. Building of Ram Mandir has a symbolic meaning that finally Hindus have arrived and the construction of Ram Mandir by demolishing a mosque will firmly establish the second class status of Muslims in India and finally the Uniform Civil Code that aims to replace the personal laws with one unified code that will be decided by the majority.
If we look at the bigger picture all these issues are about establishing a majoritarian hegemony over minority, especially Muslims, who form the largest minority group in India. So what does Uniform Civil Code really mean? Well we don’t know the exact answer to this question because there is no draft document that has been presented for public consultation. However when Uniform Civil Code is discussed some issues are highlighted regularly. It is said that Uniform Civil Code will make it illegal for Muslim men to get into a polygamous marriage. Uniform Civil Code will give better inheritance rights to Muslim women and will make it harder for a Muslim man to divorce his wife.
Now let us look at these issues independently. Why should polygamy be made illegal? Because it is unfair for men to given the right to marry more than once but the same rights are not available for women. That is a fair argument. To rectify this issue, the government can make it legal for both men and women to enter into a polygamous relationship. Next question is why should only Muslims be allowed to enter a polygamous relationship when others are barred from it? That is a fair point too. No one should be barred from entering into a polygamous relationship. Many Hindus nominally convert to Islam just to get into a polygamous relationship. Most prominent among such cases are Dharmenda and Hema Malini. Ironically both are associated with the BJP.
There is another argument that is often made in support of asking for a government imposed ban on polygamy. “No woman wants to share her husband” they say. I agree that most women would hate the idea of sharing their husbands with another woman just like most women wont like the idea of their husbands cheating on them. However extra-marital affairs are a reality. More than ever before men and women are getting into relationships after marriage. The rate of divorce has dramatically increased since the availability of access to social media. Consenting adults should have the right to form a polygamous relationship if they wish to do so. Government has no business to tell Dharmendra , Hema Malini and Prakash Kaur how they should be living their lives as responsible adults.
Now let us talk about the fundamental question. Is polygamy worse than monogamy? In India since there are 50 million females less than males due to rampant female foeticide it can be argued that polygamy will further reduce the chances of men finding a partner. This is by far the most logical argument against polygamy. Ideally polygamy is not advisable in India but people do fall in love after marriage and have children from their extra marital affairs. Polygamy provides those children with some rights. Would you rather prefer Hema Malini to be Dharmendra’s lawfully wedded wife as she is now or a mistress who enjoys no legal rights for herself and children born out of such arrangement? Add to that the social stigma of being a mistress.
Polygamy can be just as bad or good as monogamy. It is up to the responsible adults to decide what they want from their life without allowing the government to enter their bedrooms. The same argument applies to same sex marriage.
The issue of instant talaq (divorce) is less complicated. There is a genuine push among Muslims to stop that practice and turn it into a more formal process. In spite of all my disagreements with religious leaders like Zakir Naik he has done well to oppose instant divorce. There is nothing wrong in government making it mandatory for couples to go through a formal process of divorce but an out of court negotiated settlement is preferable in India where millions of cases are stagnant in the justice system. People prefer to get on with their life and find new beginnings. No one likes to spend thousands on lawyers to get tareek pe tareek.
Financial settlement after the Muslim divorce has been an often discussed topic since the Shah Bano case. Should a woman be entitled to life long maintenance from her ex husband? This is not an easy question to answer. If the children are young then the father should be responsible for at least half the care and expenses of the children until they become adults. If the woman has sacrificed her career for the family then of course the woman should be entitled to some compensation too. Codification of this law will help Muslim women. Then there is something called the Nikah Nama or the prenuptial agreement. Any modern law will accept a prenuptial agreement as legally binding. Muslim women can use this agreement to include divorce settlement clauses.
According to Islamic traditions a girl child is entitled to half of what a male is entitled to in inheritance. Parents can only give away a third of their wealth to charity the rest goes to children and other relatives. Some people say it is discriminatory against women and Muslims argue that since women are entitled to dowry from the man it is fair for them to have half the inheritance. Ideally everyone should be free to do whatever they like with their wealth. There are cases where people have given their wealth to their cats. So I am still not sure what reforms people want in this area when any “liberalization” would mean people can still distribute their wealth unevenly between their children.
There are major feminist issues in India like closing the gender population gap, family planning, education, hygiene and access to better medical care. When people ignore these humongous challenges and focus on non issues like polygamy and hijabs then it is reasonable to assume that they are driven by something else rather than an honest desire to see the welfare of women.