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In defence of the right of women to choose – columns

Twenty years ago, Asif Iqbal wanted to marry the love of his life, Ranu Kulsheshtra. Neither wanted to convert and, so, the Special Marriage Act (SMA) enacted in 1954 for interfaith couples — and those who wanted a secular marriage — was the obvious, and only, option.

But the marriage officer at Noida wasn’t ready to risk what he called a potential law and order situation, recalls Iqbal. So, Ranu moved to Delhi, took up residence in a women’s hostel and then gave 30-day notice as required by the SMA. They finally married on January 10, 2000.

Those were simpler times. The term “love jihad” was not yet in currency. Now, after a sustained whisper-campaign about a conspiracy to entrap Hindu girls into marriage for the purposes of conversion, Uttar Pradesh (UP) has passed a draft ordinance to prevent “interfaith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion”, an offence that carries a 10-year jail term.

We already have laws against forced religious conversion. What we don’t have is evidence of this conspiracy. In February, junior home minister G Kishan Reddy said no case of “love jihad” had been reported by any agency in Kerala. Yet, not just UP, but three other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled governments too want to bring in laws.

“It’s a dog whistle that cannot withstand legal scrutiny,” says senior counsel Saurabh Kirpal. “It goes against the Constitution.”

The “love jihad” narrative focuses on Muslim men and Hindu women, never the other way around. It fuels two ideas: The place of Muslims in India. And the place of women in a Hindutva worldview.

In a country where 93% of all marriages continue to be arranged to ensure caste endogamy, there is no idea more frightening than the autonomy of women.

With over half of rape complaints filed by parents of underage girls who are in consensual relationships, there is every possibility that a proposed “love jihad” law will be used by irate parents backed by social, legal and, sadly, even mob sanction.

So far, the Supreme Court has upheld an individual’s right to choose a partner. This week, two high courts, Allahabad High Court and Delhi High Court, affirmed a woman’s right to choose her partner. But courts are not immune to patriarchy.

After all, 24-year-old Hadiya was deemed by the Kerala High Court as too “weak” to take her own decisions.

Do some men lie during courtship? Undeniably. But, also undeniably, notes a 2018 Law Commission report, for some interfaith couples, conversion is the fastest route to marriage since it bypasses the 30-day public notice required by the SMA.

The solution is not to ban interfaith marriage, as this ordinance effectively does, but to make it easier for citizens to exercise their autonomy, regardless of parental approval.

At the heart of the issue is a fight for our rights as women to lead independent lives with dignity. Anyone who believes women are equal citizens has an obligation to speak up — or watch yet another right slip away.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender

The views expressed are personal

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