Right to Maintenance for Muslim Women Revisited

The Supreme Court revisited the controversial issue of a Muslim woman’s right to maintenance December 4, 2009 in a case involving a familiar, or at least very nearly, familiar name. Shabana Bano, a name that hearkens back to the controversial 1985 maintenance case involving a woman named Shah Bano, sued for maintenance, claiming that her husband left her in her village home and commanded her not to return to him until his dowry demands were met. Her husband argued that he had divorced her and, therefore, did not owe her the money, but the Court upheld her rights to maintenance. In fashioning its judgment, the Court relied on two important previous cases: the 2001 case Danial Latifi v. Union of India and the 2007 case Iqbal Bano v. State of Uttar Pradesh. But the controversy over Muslim maintenance laws has its origins in the Shah Bano case, in which a Muslim mother of five was granted alimony that she had been denied. The case catalyzed a contensious public debate about the civil code for Muslims in India and eventually caused the government to pass the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, which altered the judgment of the Supreme Court by restricting the maintenance obligations of Muslim husbands to the iddat period (typically a three month period of waiting before a new marriage would be considered legitimate). In Danial Latifi and Iqbal Bano cases, the Act was interpreted in a way that would harmonize with Articles 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. Since those cases, the Act does not limit maintenance to the iddat period, but extends it to the entire life of the divorced wife until she remarries. Despite these rulings, however, the Indian Express reports that a Muslim woman’s right to maintenence are still thought to be minimal because these cases have not received the attention that they deserve.