Men deny us equality, not the Qur’an: a female Islamic judge in India speaks out

One of the countrys first group of women trained as kazis, Jahanara, is using her religious knowledge to help Muslims fight back against male domination

Do you want to take her back alive? Or do you want her corpse? Thats what Jahanaras husband asked her mother as he beat his wife 10 years ago. That night, Jahanara gave up on her brutal marriage and left her home and four children.

Since then, her husband has refused to let her see the children, though they live in the same city, Jaipur. He has paid no alimony. He has refused to give her the 15 grammes of gold promised as part of the mandatory payment that Muslim men must make to their wives if the marriage ends. Her share in the marital home has also been denied her.

Seeking justice, 45-year-old Jahanara (who goes by only one name), went to see her local kazi or Islamic judge, who adjudicates in marriage, polygamy, divorce, triple talaq (instant divorce) and custody. The job of the kazi, usually a man, is to dispense justice according to Quranic principles. The post is generally passed down from father to son and is steeped in tradition.

However, like so many women before her, Jahanara came away disappointed and bitter. He refused to help me get my rights, she says. I refused to believe that my situation was just. I went around Jaipur asking ulemas [scholars] if the injustice done to me was permitted by the Quran. I asked them: Is this my status as a woman in the Quran? Is this the justice the Quran gives me? They all told me: Yes. This is your position. Endure it.

She decided to fight back. Today, Jahanara is one of the first female kazis in India.

Two of Indias first female Islamic judges: Afroz Begum (left) and Jahanara. Photograph: Amrit Dhillon

A seminary in Mumbai, the Darul Uloom Niswan, started a two-year course for female kazis in 2015. The hope is that, armed with Quranic knowledge, they will tackle the customs that are perceived as being detrimental to women.

This summer the first batch of 15 women completed the course and are ready to start work.

Afroz Begum, 43, is another of the course graduates. Unlike Jahanara, Begum is happily married to a man who supports her work. The Quran gives us equal rights. It gives us the right to life, education, property, the right to free choice. Once Muslim women understand this, their lives will change, she says.

Since marriage is a legal contract under Islam, not a sacrament, the terms and conditions of the nikah (marriage) must be discussed and negotiated with the kazi. At the moment, contracts tend to favour the husband.

On a hot and muggy day, Jahanara and Begum sit in a small office in a winding alley off a noisy bazaar in Jaipurs Muslim quarter. They are trying to soothe the acrimonious exchanges between Imran Khan and his young wife, Huma. Their one-year marriage has hit turbulence, and they hurl accusations at each other, with their parents egging them on.

Jahanara and Begum listen to the grievances of both sides. They tell the parents to keep out of the marriage and counsel the couple that they need to be more tolerant.

A male kazi would have told Huma to go back home at once and obey her husband, says Begum. Most Muslim women dont know anything about their rights. But now things will be different because we have learned what the Quran says.

Sitting with them is Nishat Husain, head of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (a womens group) in Jaipur, who says that the two kazis have much work to do.

Before these two new kazis perform the nikah, they are going to ask the man for proof of his qualifications, for a death certificate if he says his wife died, and for a divorce certificate if he says he is divorced, for a medical certificate, for job proof. This has to be done to protect women, but traditional kazis dont do it, says Husain.

Jahanara files a report on a feuding couple (left). Photograph: Amrit Dhillon

Understanding that the Quran gives women equal rights has made Jahanara happier. After separating from her husband, she struggled to find peace. It finally came with her kazi training, during which she learned exactly what Islam had to say about women.

If any Muslim man points a finger at her for living alone and being an activist, or questions why she left her husband, she can quote the Quran back at him.

Now that Im a kazi, now that I have knowledge, now that I have the arguments, I finally feel free. And I want other Muslim women to feel free too, says Jahanara.

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