In traditional societies like India, arranged marriage is as inherent to the social fabric of the nation as is the institution of marriage itself. This is why, often, choosing one's own partner constitutes the worst form of rebellion against a parent, and, for women, the urn-bearers of the family reputation, a choice that crosses the line from rebellion to dishonor upon the family.
Even celluloid love stories of the past decade have shown a shift from the rebellious love stories of the eighties to more accommodating, docile renditions where instead of challenging the system — the parents and the arranged marriage — you go along with the system, embracing ‘tradition' in all its splendor. But unfortunately, reel life has not aped real, or vice versa, which is evident in the numerous violent incidents against couples who chose to challenge the traditional shackles of marriage and the unwritten code for ‘acceptable' alliances. These unacceptable alliances have been met with violence against the couple, whether it is the forceful confinement of the girl by her own family, threats of (and actual) violence against the couple, panchayat decrees ordering the stripping of the woman or female relatives of the ostracized couple, murders and suicides, or murder in the garb of suicide. And this is a trend that appears to be as common in urban as in rural India – and even overseas, as evidenced in kidnappings and killings linked to marriages amongst the expatriate Asian community.
In the Indian context (and the larger South Asian context of countries that are similarly tradition), with women in general and girls in particular hardly enjoying the space to make life changing decisions themselves, it is hardly surprising that curbs on a woman's right to choose whom to marry manifest themselves in a multitude of ways, irrespective of the religion they conform to. So while child marriages are brazenly practiced, marriages to pay off family debts do exist, forced marriages are employed to prevent girls from marrying the men of their choice, widows are coerced in to marriages with the brother-in-law (or other male relatives) or into polyandrous marriages and such seemingly endless situations, women – viewed as either the husband's or father's property – do not have the choice to make decisions on their own marriage.
Religion, culture and value systems and the abundant use of prevailing customs in many parts of the country thwart the protection of this right of choice to marry. And the noise is not always only about inter-religious marriages but even over marriages that violate caste or sub-caste distinctions and specific cultural, regional sanctions. Additionally, those wanting to get out of a bad marriage through divorce invite further violence from not just the marital home but often from the paternal side too. And even as 'honor' crimes occur against women, honor killings themselves are not listed as a crime against women and hence, continue unabated in various forms and disguises as an inherent part of any patriarchal structure.
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It is in this context that Muslim bodies and Islamic scholars at a meeting, in the national capital of New Delhi unanimously decided that "in Islam, the girl has every right to marry the boy of her choice and her parents cannot impose their decision on her since the Sharia (Muslim law) gives the girl right to choose her future husband." This meeting, attended, amongst others, by members of All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), and Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband under the banner of Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA) made truly a land mark decision – even if it remains to be tested.
It was further reiterated that Islam does not condone forced marriages and if a girl is forced in to such an alliance she has every right to declare her marriage null and void "because such a marriage will also be against Sharia."
While the Sharia law decision is not legally binding, and Sharia is open to interpretation, the decision is an important and progressive way of looking at women's rights within the Muslim context. It has not been disputed as yet — though that have more to do with its non-binding nature and that it was within the Indian context.
What makes this particularly important is that not only are girls (irrespective of their religious faiths) married off very early, but they are also often married to men much older than they are. No matter the age of the girl's husband, it's an extremely dangerous situation: the girl's education is aborted (for those of whom who even get an education) and they are thrust in to the adult demands of a marriage when their bodies might not be ready for the same.
With the long-standing, rigid, social demands for women in place, any challenge to them is bound to extract its price. With the denial of choice for women disguised in the elaborate garb of tradition, it is decisions like this – like using the Sharia to actually hand over agency to the women especially with regard to choices that impact their bodily autonomy and their life – that might prove to be the most sustainable and have the deepest impact.