The case of a village woman who accused her father-in-law of raping her in Muzaffarnagar, India, has Muslims and Hindus in India divided over an old issue, according to the Indian media. Though that incident occurred on June 3, even in the last week of July women, many veiled in burqas, marched through a Muslim neighborhood of Mumbai against the “fatwas issued by self-styled religious leaders,” reported The Telegraph newspaper.

The now infamous Imrana case has been making national headlines in India ever since it was brought out in the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran. The very basis of the case, the alleged rape of Imrana by her father-in-law, has itself been the subject of some debate.

Interviews with neighbors revealed that Imrana and her husband were in the middle of a property dispute with her father-in-law. Neighbors claimed they had not heard her scream, although the summer heat had forced many of them to sleep outside. Imrana herself went back on her story in a video testimony recorded by the Muslim Political Council (MPC), shown at a press conference by MPC president Tasleem Rahmani, the Milli Gazette, an English-language Muslim newspaper reports. In the video, she claimed that a feminist group had bribed her, referring perhaps to the Muslim Women’s Forum, a Delhi-based women’s group that paid Imrana to wait for a civil court’s ruling instead of accepting the course of action dictated by Muslim Personal Law.

The greatest debate in the case has been around the interpretation of Muslim Personal Law or Shariat, under which Muslims are subject to the rules of their own religious community instead of the civil courts in certain legal matters, including marriage. A panchayat, a group of elders who were called together in Imrana’s village to discuss the case, and later the mufti at Darul Uloom Deoband, a prominent Muslim seminary in India, concluded that Imrana was now haram, or unclean, and that she must marry her father-in-law and have the relationship of a mother to her former husband. The decision was confirmed by the All India Personal Law Board, an organization designed to protect Shariat from interference by courts of law.

But some Muslims are accusing Hindus of taking advantage of the case to renew their campaign against Muslim Personal Law. L.K. Advani, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s largest opposition party, told reporters, “Ulemas should be forced to think and review their law. It is unfortunate that a rape victim is punished severely while the person accused of committing the rape walks away without any punishment.” Advani claimed that the BJP is “serious about ending unjust acts against Muslim women in the country,” reports Outlook magazine.

The BJP has long held as one of its goals the implementation of a uniform civil code, which would abolish Shariat and subject Muslims to the same laws as other Indians. Advani’s statement prompted a response from Syed Shahabuddin, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat. He accused the BJP of taking advantage of the hype to advance its own cause of ridding India of Shariat.

But the idea of a woman having to marry her rapist and family member angered many people, both within and outside of the Muslim community. In the internet-based Muslim news source, reporter Zafarul-Islam Khan wrote that the panchayat was misleadingly described by the media as a “Shariat Panchayat, as if a meeting of Islamic scholars had taken place, and that the mufti had given his statement without ascertaining the facts of the case or going to the area or sending someone there to find out the truth.” Mustafa Kamal Sherwani, president of the All India Muslim Forum, gave a statement to the Milli Gazette, saying, “The fatwa‚ (religious edict) given by the Deoband seminary and confirmed by the Muslim Personal Law Board is most retrograde, and in total violation of Islamic Shariat. Countless provisions of Qur’an bear ample testimony to the fact that nobody can be punished or subjected to adverse consequences for any deed which he or she was compelled to commit,” Sherwani said.

Outside of the Muslim community, critics include leftist political parties, and most notably, women’s rights groups. The president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, Brinda Karat, claimed that “it is indeed barbaric that instead of ensuring severe action against the culprit who has committed such an unpardonable crime, the so-called learned men are interpreting customary religious laws and pronouncing judgments which not only go against the law but also against all humanitarian norms.”

An editorial in the Economic Times put the blame on Indian political parties for not defending Imrana. “When patriarchal prejudice dons the mantle of religious authority to strip a rape victim of her strongest potential source of support, her husband, our political parties simply wallow in cowardly opportunism, unable to defend the victim, her rights, principles of justice, or the law of the land. The clergy should clearly be told to back off when it comes to dealing with crime—that is the state’s domain.”

While many Muslim scholars and reporters disagree with the fatwa, they also express disgust with the way that non-Muslim media has politicized the situation. In his article in IslamOnline, Khan writes that newspapers, agencies, NGOs, and government organizations descended on the village and “started interviewing just about anyone they found on the village streets, reporting edited versions which showed that a great crime had been committed against a hapless Muslim woman even before the crime was established” and that political parties “were also quick to take advantage of the issue in order to indulge in their usual pastime of attacking the Muslim Personal Laws and repeat their age-old demand to force a Uniform Civil Code applicable to all citizens.”

He concludes that “forces which are ever ready to use any handle to beat Muslims with will soon find some other issue and blow it out of proportion unless leaders of the Muslim community are ready to meet the challenges and adapt to the demands of the modern times and requirements of natural justice.”

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