Indian Muslim 'instant divorce' ban hailed but faces court challenge

Jalees ANDRABI
The banning of triple talaq, or 'instant divorce', led to celebrations across India by some Muslim women's groups (AFP Photo/Sajjad HUSSAIN)

New Delhi (AFP) - The Indian government and women's groups hailed "historic" legislation Wednesday that criminalised "instant divorce" for Muslims, but an influential Islamic group said it would launch a legal challenge.

India's upper house passed a bill Tuesday banning the centuries-old practice that allowed men to separate from their wives by saying "talaq" -- or divorce -- three times.

Husbands who use it now can be jailed for up to three years or be fined.

Some Muslim women's groups celebrated at events across India, which has followed Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in regulating "triple talaq".

Zakia Soman, a social activist who launched a campaign against the practice nearly a decade ago, said the legislation would serve as a deterrent against the unjust treatment of women, some of whom were divorced with a WhatsApp message or by phone.

"This law is the result of decades of injustice meted out to Muslim women and the unsympathetic attitude of the political class and clergy," Soman told AFP.

The government called the parliament vote "historic".

"An archaic and medieval practice has finally been confined to the dustbin of history," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter late Tuesday.

- 'Medieval' divorce banned -

But other Muslim groups fought the law and even the opposition Congress Party was against it, accusing Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of targeting one minority group.

Zafaryab Jilani of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board vowed Wednesday to challenge the new legislation in court.

He said the action was part of a wider campaign by Modi's Hindu nationalist party to undermine religious freedom.

"We are not surprised by the legislation as it is part of their larger agenda to change the country's constitution and snatch away the rights of minorities," Jilani, secretary of the Muslim group, told AFP.

Jilani said a petition against the law had nearly 50 million signatories across India.

Asaduddin Owaisi, a leading Muslim lawmaker, said the new legislation "should be seen only as one part of many attacks on Muslim identity and citizenship" since Modi came to power in 2014.

India's Supreme Court ruled triple talaq illegal in 2017, following a campaign by Muslim women whose marriages were ended by the practice. But the top court said the government had to pass legislation to ban it.

Law minister Ravi Shanker Prasad quoting media reports told parliament that around 350 cases had been reported since the Supreme Court ruling in 2017.