New Delhi: A Delhi High Court ruling that a Muslim girl can marry once she attains the age of puberty has sharply split the community, with clerics backing the law and virtually everyone else against it.
Muslim religious leaders across the country are pleased with the court edict that based its judgement on the Sharia, the moral code and religious law of Islam. While criminal laws in India apply to all equally, communities are allowed their own personal laws.
"According to Mohammedan law, a girl can marry without the consent of her parents once she attains the age of puberty," Justices S Ravindra Bhat and SP Garg said recently.
The bench was ruling on a Delhi Muslim girl`s contention that she had married on her own free will when she was 15 years old and that her mother`s charge that she had been abducted be dropped. She won the case.
Well-known Bengali writer Syed Mustafa Siraj is amongst those who are shocked that a court has given legal sanction for puberty-marriage when the official minimum age to wed in India is 18 for females and 21 for males.
"A lot of girls attain puberty at age 12. Does it mean they can be married off when they are barely 12-13? I protest against this ruling," Siraj said in Kolkata.
Bangalore-based writer Farida Rahamatullah agreed: "Whatever the personal laws of Muslims, Hindus or Christians, it is a crime to let a 15-year-old girl marry and begin a family life when she ought to be studying, playing and dreaming of a career and a job.
"In fact the law courts should protect the girls and ensure they exercise the right to marry or not till they turn major at 18 years. Fifteen is too young an age to decide their future as they will be immature, indulgent and vulnerable to the hazards of a family life."
Patna-based Maulana Anisur Rahman Qasmi, however, hailed the ruling. "There is nothing wrong in it," he said.
Raheem Quraishi, assistant secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, echoed him. "It is a right decision."
The Board has been demanding an amendment to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act to exempt Muslims from it. Under the Shariat Application Act, marriage is one subject where the Sharia should be applicable.
The Board has also been impleaded in a case with the Bombay High Court in which parents were booked by police for marrying off their 17-year-old daughter.
"I respect the high court`s order," added Mufti Mohammed Mukarram Ahmed, the Shahi Imam of the Fatehpuri Masjid in Old Delhi. "As per Muslim Personal Law, a 15-year-old girl can marry."
But they appeared to be isolated with a large majority of urban Muslims as outraged as Syed Mustafa Siraj and Farida Rahamatullah.
"This is totally wrong," cried out Mohammad Shabbir Ansari, an engineer at Noida, which borders Delhi.
Homemaker Nazia Umar said: "I am not at all in favour of this decision. Whatever reasons a court may give, Islam does not allow anything that hurts anyone. A 15-year-old is not ready for marriage."
Noorjahan Safafia Niaz, founder member of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan in Mumbai, backed them.
"A 15-year-old girl might have reached puberty but she might not be emotionally mature or ready for marriage," she said.
Taha Moheen, president of the Bangalore Islamic Foundation, warned that the judgement could lead to exploitation and set a bad precedent.
He also pointed out that the number of such marriages had declined, especially in urban areas, due to awareness and interventions by community leaders and religious heads opposed to child marriages.
According to the Sharia, a Muslim girl can marry once she attains puberty. Keeping this in view, the British permitted Muslims to marry their daughters when they were 15.
Subsequent governments increased the age of marriage for all communities to 18 and then came the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. The Board wants Muslims to be exempt from this law.
Abdul Azeem, a postgraduate student in Hyderabad, was in favour of the ruling but warned that the Sharia can`t be interpreted in bits and pieces.
"The court has said only one part of the Sharia. There are also `ahadith` (sayings of Prophet Mohammed) that a marriage is not valid without the consent of `vali` or custodian of the girl.
"Such one-sided verdicts promote vices. This could encourage girls to violate the limitations set by Sharia, develop illicit relations and revolt against parents."
Aziz Mubaraki, secretary to the Shahi Imam of Kolkata`s Tipu Sultan Mosque, went a step further: "We feel the court should not involve itself in religious matters. We will be guided by the tenets of Islam. We will go by our religious norms, even if there is an overlapping court ruling."