Prostitution in India is illegal. Halala is legal. Almost every day, in the city pages of newspapers, we find small news stories about girls rescued from brothels by the local police. Most girls have a sob story to relate; how they were duped with false promises of work in a big city, better income and so on. Many had been sold, bought and resold before they were rescued by police and sent to women rehabilitation centres like Nari Niketan.
Much like it was with Zebun Nissa in Bhopal. For the first six years of married life, she had only known peace. A typical middle-class woman with a husband who earned well enough from his truck transport business, and in-laws who did not meddle much in her affairs. She lived with, besides her husband, her parents-in-law and a brother-in-law. What the family of five adults did not have was a little child, a baby to keep everybody busy and happy. Zebun Nissa could never conceive. She consulted many doctors in Bhopal, even went to Gwalior and Jhansi, and finally to Delhi. Nothing worked. Just as she had resigned herself to a life without the joys of motherhood, her husband dropped a bombshell.
Keen to be a father, Rafiq Ahmed was advised to remarry. One evening, he said the dreaded three words to Zebun Nissa—talaq, talaq, talaq. With the utterance of talaq, Zebun Nissa’s world came crashing down. She was a sociology graduate but had never picked up a job; not even as a teacher in a local primary school. Thrown out of her husband’s house, she went back to her parents in Lucknow. This was not a long-term solution, she soon realised. The house where she had spent more than twenty years was now virtually taken over by her brother and his family. His family was young and growing and her parents confined themselves to a room on the first floor. Days turned into weeks, and Zebun Nissa tried to pick up the pieces of her life all over again. It was not easy. Adding to her lack of professional qualification was her emotional turmoil. She longed to step out of the house.
One day, her mobile rang late at night. It was Ahmed. For a minute, Zebun Nissa was speechless and confused. Should she pick up or ignore the call? As she tried to sort out the confusion in her mind, the phone stopped ringing. She heaved a sigh of relief that she did not have to decide right at that moment. Then the phone rang again. The same dilemma revisited. Zebun Nissa put the phone on vibration mode. Ahmed appeared persistent. He called again. It had been a little under a month since he snapped his relationship with Zebun Nissa with multiple pronouncements of talaq in a single sitting. He seemed desperate to find a way through to his former wife, now in iddah, the three-month-long period of waiting, after which the woman can choose to marry again.
Zebun Nissa finally mustered up enough courage to pick up the phone. For a few seconds, she could not say a word, not even the usual greeting of Assalam-o-alaikum. Ahmed was only slightly better. He kept saying, ‘Hello, hello!’ he knew she had not disconnected. Finally, Zebun Nissa spoke. Ahmed wanted her back. Overcoming her feeling of hurt and anger, she agreed almost immediately. She loved him still. He loved her too. Zebun Nissa could barely control her emotions. She fell prostrate on the floor as she thanked Allah. Her marriage was intact. She could go back to the man she loved.
Her happiness lasted only a few hours. Next morning, after the usual bed tea, she broke the news to her parents, hoping they would call up their son-in-law and give him a few tips on domestic harmony. Seeing her happy for the first time since she came back, her father agreed to send her back but added a rider, ‘Let me speak to maulvi sahib first. Is it allowed in sharia? He will tell us how we can go about it.’ Zebun Nissa did not want anybody’s involvement. Just the fact that Ahmed had called up, apologised for his action and wanted her back was enough for her. Still, she did not want to be on the wrong side of faith. So, she agreed to her father’s proposal of speaking to a cleric. That is where her happiness died.
As her father consulted a local cleric who led everyday prayers in the masjid, he was told, ‘Zebun Nissa cannot go back to her husband. After instant triple talaq, she is haram (prohibited) for her husband. Now she can only go back to him after doing halala (to make permissible).’
‘What is halala?’ her father asked. ‘She has to marry another man, obtain a divorce, perform iddah, then remarry her first husband. This is like a punishment for her first husband for not having control over his temper,’ explained the maulvi, trying to make the information palatable to Zebun Nissa’s father. It did not matter to the cleric that according to the Supreme Court, after the august 2017 pronouncement making instant triple talaq invalid, her marriage subsisted. Even when the spouses were ready to let bygones be bygones. According to Islam, the final divorce comes into effect only after talaq has been pronounced thrice with a gap of at least one menstrual cycle.
Also read: Nikah halala: Is it rape or religion?
With the cleric’s ruling, Zebun Nissa’s world fell apart. all her dreams of going back to her husband were nipped in the bud. But Ahmed refused to give up so soon. He called again. This time, he seemed nervous, jittery and a shade unsure. Finally, he broached the subject. ‘Could you marry the cleric? He will divorce you soon after. Nobody will get to know. Halala will be done. We can marry again,’ he persisted.
‘What if he doesn’t?’ Zebun Nissa asked Ahmed. ‘He will. He is a decent man. He has done this earlier to save the marriages of many people. It is just a question of one night. He will marry you after isha (the last prayer of the day) and divorce you after fajr (the first prayer of the day). No strings attached.’
What Ahmed did not tell her was that the maulvi sahib had asked to be paid for his services towards ‘saving marriages of decent men’. Since they had been married for six years, Ahmed was asked to pay an amount equal to the mehr he had settled upon with Zebun Nissa, at the time of marriage, and add Rs 2,000 per year of marriage to that. Zebun Nissa’s mehr was fixed at Rs 50,000 at the time of her nikah. as a result, the figure came to Rs 62,000, an amount Ahmed could afford with some effort. He was ready and willing. He just wanted his wife back.
‘Does it not amount to prostitution?’ Zebun Nissa asked Ahmed, ‘like a man sleeps with a woman and pays her, here is this maulvi offering to sleep with your wife to save your marriage! I am sure, the Quran does not approve of such a marriage.’
With a finality, Zebun Nissa shut the door on a possible halala to reunite with her husband. With her instant decision, maulvi sahib’s visions of a quick marriage, furtive union, followed by the inevitable divorce were tossed away. This was a narrow shave for Zebun Nissa. However, not every woman is as lucky. Countless other women undergo the mortifying process of halala to resume wedlock with their husbands. In a 2017 survey, India Today magazine found a startling number of clerics who first pushed for halala to ‘save marriages’, then offered themselves as a temporary husband, at times for a few hours and sometimes for a few days, before the woman is divorced again and allowed to remarry her earlier husband.
This makes a mockery of the Islamic injunction wherein a woman is given the choice of remarriage through halala.
Halala, the way the Quran speaks of it, empowers women to take independent decisions. It saves women from temperamental husbands who divorce in a fit of anger, then take it back, then divorce again, unleashing an endless cycle of marriage and divorce, as was the practice in pre-Islamic days. At that time, many men treated women as mere objects of pleasure. They would marry and divorce according to their whims, leaving women completely vulnerable in this endless game. The Quran called a halt to this by limiting the number of divorces in a nikah to three and by completely releasing a woman trapped in such a marriage. Halala was meant to keep men who have zero control over their temper or passion at bay. However, the way it often works out in the Indian Muslim society, it only serves to fulfil the lust of the men and degrades women, reducing them to chattel.
This excerpt from Nikah Halala: Sleeping With a Stranger by Ziya Us Salam has been published with permission from Bloomsbury.