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This is the third of a four-part series.
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V P Suhara
is a feminist and crusader for the rights of Muslim women. "Can you show me where the Quran allows a man to divorce his wife at will?" she demands.

Where does it allow him to say talaq thrice over and throw his wife out when he feels like it?"

E-Mail this report to a friend A bold, dangerous question. But completely in character with the 48-year-old lady sitting opposite us. She has seen the worst of talaq. First as a victim and later fighting for other victims.

V P Suhara, the lady behind Nisah, a Calicut-based non-governmental organisation exclusively dedicated to Muslim women, cares for only one thing today: justice to her sisters. Justice for the thousands who, according to her, are trapped by a set of antiquated laws perpetrated by an orthodox, male chauvinist society.

"The fault isn't with the Quran. It has been misinterpreted," she says, "The fault is with our law. It is the Muslim Personal Law that gives men the right to practice such evils as talaq and polygamy."

Suhara isn't your sophisticated social activist who for effect wears feminist thoughts on her sleeve. She is the exact opposite. There is no polish to her words or actions. They are, like her, simple, bold and straight, at times rhetorical and dangerous to a fault, but always honest. She believes in straight fights, never mind if she is facing the might of an orthodox community spurred by fundamentalist forces.

Which is why Suhara now plans a courageous step: To move court, all the high courts in the country simultaneously, for dramatic amendments to the Muslim Personal Law. To make it mandatory that all marriages, including nikah, to be registered under the Special Marriages Act, the alternative that India provides to the nuptials under the law of a religion (like the Muslim Personal Law, Hindu Personal Law etc).

Thirty-four years ago, at age 14, her middle-class orthodox family married Suhara off to a man nearly 10 years her senior. Suhara isn't sure of many things about her husband. She doesn't, for instance, know his exact age, or his job. Those weren't the questions that a young girl asked in an orthodox community.

"We had been taught from childhood that husband was god. I never talked back to him and was always humble. In short," she reminisces, "I behaved with him just how a child would behave with her father."

Her divorce came four years later; she's still to be told the reason. By then she was the mother of two. "In my childhood I had seen my uncles divorcing their wives at will. I had seen their tears. I thought this was the punishment for what they had done."

The next four years saw Suhara passing her matriculation and training as a nurse. Of course, there was a lot of objection at home. Her matriculation was done in absolute secrecy, through correspondence. She started working as a nurse -- an unheard of thing in the Calicut of then.

"When I was 22 my family got another marriage offer from a man who was about 65. I was dead against it, but had to agree in front of my umma's (mother's) tears," she says.

A year later, after she gave birth to a son, her husband fell ill. He spent the next 11 years in bed, paralysed. Those years saw Suhara entering the social arena as an activist for a women's organisation, Bodhana.

"There I saw women 10 times more in need of help than me. My story was nothing compared to theirs. I wanted to study more about them. I started attending religious classes. I started reading translations of the Quran. Then I understood that the hegemony of man over woman was not advocated in Islam," she says.

"I lost my family when I started working for the society," she continues, "I lost my children. They didn't want to be associated with a mother who seemed to be fighting the religion. To them I was like... like... I mean, not everyone like this kind of a mother. They disassociated themselves from me. But then you can't satisfy everyone, can you?"

Suhara worked for Bodhana for some more time. But then she started feeling alienated there. She was concentrating on helping Muslim women, which didn't go down well with her colleagues.

"I couldn't bear to stay there anymore. I had dedicated my life, my children's love for a cause -- and now even my colleagues were alienating me. I locked up my house and with my youngest son left Calicut," she says.

In the next few years, Suhara lived in Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam, surviving as a nurse. Then she left for Saudi Arabia, where she worked for one-and-a-half years. Even there the ghost of talaq haunted her. Her colleagues and the women she came in contact had only sad tales to tell her.

On her return to Calicut, Suhara's plans were uncertain. She wanted to do something for divorced Muslim women.

"That was the time when the issue of women entering mosques was at its peak," she says, "There were discussions, morchas (rallies) and speeches everyday -- but none of the so-called women's organisations, not one, stood up. That was when my belief that there should be an organisation exclusively for Muslim women strengthened."

"Going to the mosque is a woman's right," she adds, "The Quran doesn't forbid it."

The final spur to launch Nisah, however, came a little later. At a much-touted seminar on 'Muslim Personal Law and women', Suhara saw social activist and well-known Malayalam poetess Sugatha Kumari taking a beating from Muslim women speakers.

"They said talaq was okay, polygamy was fine and there was nothing wrong with the Muslim Personal Law. They were all educated, intelligent women! They wanted to know why Sugatha Kumari, 'a Nair woman', wanted to meddle in Muslim affairs!

"Even more sad was that there were no women's organisation to speak up against this. Not one was even present at the venue. That was the moment I decided to form Nisah."

It is two years since Nisah -- literally meaning 'woman' -- has come into being. Suhara will be the first to admit that it has not taken roots as she planned. There are just three full-time activists. And the fact that it is meant exclusively for women has come under constant criticism.

"There was -- still is -- a lot of opposition. I get many threatening calls. I don't mind such opposition from fundamentalists, but why is it that even other women's organisations are alienating us? I have dedicated my life for Muslim women and yet... Can't at least 10 of them come out with me?"

Nisah has taken up quite a few divorce cases and settled them. Suhara's method of functioning is, true to character, simple and straight: Go directly to the man's family with the wronged woman and, if a settlement is refused, create uproar there. This may take the form of a morcha in front of the house or anything that might attract attention.

"As per Muslim Personal Law, a male, even a mad man, can divorce his wife by just saying 'talaq, talaq, talaq'! Even sending a postcard with 'talaq' written on it is enough! That is the law!" she says, "But the Quran allows divorce only in unavoidable circumstances. After all efforts fail to solve the differences.

"As for polygamy, yes, Islam allows it. That has a history to it. Wars had killed many Muslim warriors orphaning many Muslim women and children. Islam tells the males to take care of the orphaned. What should be noted here is that Islam allows polygamy only to take care of the orphaned. Is that what is happening here? Is it that there is a shortage of men here? No. Here they marry you because they want a new woman. And when they divorce you, 90 per cent of the time doesn't even support you," she says.

Nisah, under a newly elected committee, feels all these can be remedied by making it mandatory under the law for all marriages -- whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian -- to be registered under the Special Marriages Act. This would mean that a court of law or a similar authority approves the union. Once that happens divorcing a woman wouldn't be just a matter of saying talaq.

"You register births and deaths. So why can't you register marriages?" she demands, "There should also be amendments that disallows polygamy under the Muslim Personal Law."

Suhara knows her action may attract personal attacks. But isn't worried. "I don't care if it gets me killed. If that will help my sisters, I don't mind...

"Besides," she adds seriously, "a martyr is always good for a cause."

Tears of a talaq victim: "I don't mind him marrying again. But I wish he would send me some money every month."

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