It is the duty of the state to protect the life
and dignity of citizens, whatever their religion,” proclaims
Sona Khan, prominent Indian lawyer and human rights activist, who
will be in residence at Emory March 17–28 as the spring 2003
Halle Distinguished Fellow.
Under the auspices of the Halle Institute for Global Learning, Khan
will discuss the plight of South Asian women through several class
visits and public lectures at Emory and other area institutions.
Based on her women’s rights work in India—work she grounds
in the Koran and her Islamic faith—Khan has been asked to
join the defense of Amina Lawal, who in 2002 became the second Nigerian
woman convicted of adultery since the northern Nigerian states restored
Islamic Shari’a law two years ago. Unless her appeal succeeds,
Lawal will be buried to her waist and stoned to death.
Khan is best known for her role in the highly charged Shahbano case,
which began as a simple alimony dispute between husband and wife
and ended up exposing tensions in the Indian constitution and igniting
protests from Muslim and Hindu groups.
In 1978, Shahbano, a 65-year-old Muslim woman, asked for financial
“maintenance” from her husband, who had abandoned her
for another woman. Shahbano’s demands ran counter to the Indian
legal system, which in an effort to manage the volatile religious
diversity of its citizenry, continues to recognize the distinct
marriage and divorce laws of minority communities. In the case of
Muslim law, this meant that Shahbano, who had no means to support
herself, was due only three months’ maintenance for more than
40 years of marriage.
Seven years later, Sona Khan successfully argued Shahbano’s
case before the Indian Supreme Court, which in a landmark decision
overruled Muslim law and awarded Shahbano 25 rupees (60 cents) per
month ongoing maintenance.
Yet the victory was short lived; the court’s ruling outraged
several Muslim groups, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets
in rallies. In the end, the Congress Party government, eager to
appease minority voters and despite vociferous Hindu accusations
of bowing to Muslim pressure, passed legislation that effectively
negated the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The Shahbano case was twisted for political purposes,”
Khan said. “Minority rights are not superior to the individual
rights to life and dignity. Taking Muslim women out of the secular
domain is unconstitutional. It is politically dangerous as well,
as it divides the country on the basis of religion.
“Muslim law in South Asia is very much custom ridden, which
is not Islamic in many ways but came to be applied as such due to
historical reasons,” Khan continued. “It suits the political
leaders to encourage fundamentalism and minority rights for their
own vested interests. Women of all denominations have been the worst
affected in this process of governance. Muslim women in particular
have been victims, whether they live under democratic regimes or
dictatorships. I have fought for the rights of Muslim women, not
only in India but elsewhere, by generating understanding of the
involved principles of Muslim jurisprudence.”
In her defense of Amina Lawal, Khan said she is working to demonstrate
that the shari’a court’s verdict was not only contrary
to the Nigerian constitution but to the tenets of Islamic law as
Khan also has battled to end child trafficking in South Asia, where
more than 100,000 children a year are sold as sex slaves. “Due
to the fear of AIDS, the demand for young prostitutes is going up
and up,” she said. “Children are trafficked because
there is no source of livelihood. The reduction of poverty and enhancement
of local sustainability is imperative to preventing such happenings.”
During her two-week tenure as Halle Distinguished Fellow, Khan will
deliver a series of public lectures at Emory:
• “Women and Law in South Asia,” March 17.
• “Muslim Law in South Asia,” March 19.
• “Child Trafficking,” March 27.
All lectures will be held from 4:30–6 p.m. at the Halle Institute,
Gambrell Hall, suite 150.
For more information, visit www.emory.edu/OIA/Halle/skhan.html.