The Shah Bano Case [1985 AIR 945, 1985 SCC (2) 556] is one of the most important and controversial cases in Indian personal laws. Here are five reasons why it is such a landmark case:
1. Triggered the Muslim woman’s fight for Justice
In India, a Muslim woman is perceived as obedient to the dictates of her religion and community. For a Muslim woman to question the Islamic law and fight for alimony in court for justice was unheard of. By claiming what she believed to be rightfully hers, she challenged the beliefs of a religion and the way it was interpreted by the society, the religious leaders as well as the entire socio-legal system that prevailed in the country
2. Bold Ruling by the Supreme Court
Typically, Muslim personal laws are interpreted by considering it in light of the principles of Islamic law. The case threw open wider issues pertaining to a Muslim woman’s security and dignity in a marriage.
3. Debate and Discussion in the Country
The whole country discussed and debated about the Shah Bano case because nothing so staggering had ever happened before. There was a mixture of reactions to this ruling that awoke the nation’s conscience at large. From anger to shock to disbelief and to downright rage, this case brought together a variety of cultural responses from India’s diverse population.
4. Enactment of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986
Few Acts have been so quickly passed as did the The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986. The Act came under extreme criticism as a majority of non-Muslims perceived it as a clear symbol of political appeasement at the time of elections. The new Act stated that the Muslim husband is liable to pay alimony only during iddat (the span of 3 months after the divorce). It also stated that if a divorced woman has no relatives to take care of her or she has no way to take care of herself, the magistrate has to order the State Waqf Board to provide support to the woman and her children.
5. Personal Laws can be Political Battlegrounds
The Shah Bano case taught the country that personal laws can become political battlegrounds because religions influence personal law. In cases that challenge personal laws, it becomes nearly impossible to delineate the historical, personal and political elements from each other as they are all seamlessly woven into one entity.