March 17, 2003

Khan visits as semester's Halle Fellow, March 17-28

Lailee Mendelson is communications specialist for the Office of International Affairs

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 well.

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.

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