Wednesday, December 17, 2008

converting to islam

Chander Mohan, the erstwhile deputy chief minister of Haryana, recently converted to Islam so that he could take a second wife under Indian law. It's not the first time this has happened (to keep outsiders up to speed). India's controversial "civil code" sets different laws for marriage among Hindus, Christians, Muslims, etc., one of which is that Muslims are allowed to take multiple wives (as per the Koran, I suppose).

There are several reasons why Mohan's conversion--an apparently cynical act--is bad for India, not least that it encourages the failed justice system to go on putting its head in the sand over divorce, which is almost impossible to achieve by any other method than mutual consent. But the most important problem with these cynical conversions, which happen every few years, is that they encourage the false belief that all Indian Muslims have four wives and 16 children--promoted by the loony Hindu right to justify hatred, and supported by a typically massive and ungrammatical campaign of disinformation. The Indian press have, with justification, taken Mohan to task. But nobody has really talked about the real problem: For some reason, the guy can't just go get a divorce.

A segment of Indian society believes that "the institution of marriage" is falling apart due to a rising divorce rate. But I would argue that it's never been stronger, and it will only get stronger still as divorce becomes more prevalent and women make further gains in employment and education. The traditional institution is simply servitude. My maid, for example, has five kids (she's a Hindu), a husband who takes her salary and beats her for her trouble, then sits around the house all week watching TV. (He watches the news, and fights with her son, who wants to watch MTV). But she can't leave the guy, because then she'd be the rape victim of every Tom, Dick and Harry who lives in the slum. And she can't get a divorce and go look for somebody who treats her like a human being, because that would take 20 years in court.

Once upon a time I visited a women's self-help group in one of Delhi's satellite towns (a glorified village, really), and met a dozen or so women just like my maid. Averaging about 22 years old, they'd been "politicized" or whatever by a group affiliated with the women's wing of the communist party--meaning they had been made to know how badly they were being treated, and that they actually had the right to more. But there wasn't too much for them to do, apart from leave their husbands and move back in with their parents. And not all of them could even achieve that, due to financial difficulties. So they sneaked off to meet their secret rebels, suffering still. At least not in silence, if that is something worth mentioning.

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