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Hoping UCC brings gender justice is idealistic. For one, it doesn’t tackle Hindu polygamy

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Women’s movement itself, after advocating for a Uniform Civil Code since pre-Independence, is now focusing more on reforms in personal laws.

The implementation of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) could be pushed back by nearly 10 years, ThePrint reported Tuesday. With less than a year left before the general elections, the Narendra Modi government had been pushing for its implementation because it was one of the key promises in its 2014 manifesto.

If implemented, the UCC will replace all religion-based laws that govern aspects of personal life such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and succession. Importantly, the UCC will serve as an overarching law governing all citizens.

One of the main arguments for the UCC has been that it will bring about greater gender justice because personal laws, governed by religion, tend to discriminate against women or resort to conferring a few token rights, at best.

However, since there is no settled blueprint of what the UCC will look like, the notion that it will automatically lead to gender justice seems both hazy and idealistic. Moreover, this train of thought seems inherently biased against only those unjust practices that cannot be found in the Hindu personal law, such as polygamy.

There does seem to be some truth to what feminist scholar Nivedita Menon writes: “The Uniform Civil Code is meant to discipline Muslims, teach them (if they didn’t know already)… and that they live at the mercy of the national race (the Hindus)”.

It is for this reason that the women’s movement itself, after advocating for a UCC since pre-Independence, relocated their demand to focus more on reforms in personal laws and called for “gender-just” laws on subjects like domestic violence.

A more recent example of this reform within personal law came when the Supreme Court outlawed the practice of ‘triple talaq’ whereby Muslim men could instantly divorce their wives.

While many argued that this judgment paved the way for introduction of the UCC, it is also a telling example of how the negative aspects of personal laws can be weeded out while the more positive ones can be allowed to continue. For instance, Mehar or dower under the Muslim personal law is a sum of money or property, which is paid/delivered to the wife, and she can use it as and when she wants.

A major bone of contention with the Muslim personal law, which is being pushed as a reason to institute the UCC is polygamy. Statistical data, however, has shown that Hindus are historically more polygamous than Muslims. What is more, while Muslim law grants the wives certain benefits, Hindu law fails to recognise polygamy.

Muslim law, for instance, dictates that in a polygamous relationship, the husband is legally bound to provide the wife with residence, proper maintenance and equal care and love.

In contrast, Hindu men are allowed to go scot-free, without any legal obligation towards their other partners due to the cultural insistence on the “solemnisation” of one marriage in Hindu law.

The downside of this is that in our deep-rooted patriarchal culture, where the societal stigma attached to divorce is immense and a woman is financially dependent on her husband, the second wife of a Hindu man is inherently more disadvantaged than the multiple wives of a Muslim man.

How then does one decide what is actually a beneficial Uniform Civil Code?

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