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A Landmark Verdict for Women's Rights in India: Mohd. Ahmed Khan v/s Shah Bano Begum

In 1932, the Appellant [Mohd. Ahmed Khan] an advocate by profession, was married to Shah Bano Begum [Shah Bano Begum], Three sons and two daughters were born of that marriage. In 1975, after 45 years of togetherness, he drove her wife out of the matrimonial home. In April 1978, the Respondent filed a petition under Section 125 Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 [CrPC] against her husband in the Court of Judicial Magistrate (First Class) Indore and claimed maintenance at the rate of Rs. 500 per month in the said petition.

On 6th November 1978, after 7 months since the filing of the petition, Mohd. Ahmed Khan divorced her wife by an irrevocable talaq. The counsel on behalf of the Mohd. Ahmed Khan submitted before the Hon'ble Court that Shah Bano Begum had ceased to be his wife by reason of the divorce granted by him and therefore, he has no obligation to provide maintenance for her.

Moreover, the petitioner submitted that he had already provided maintenance to her at the rate of Rs. 200 per month for about two years and he had deposited a sum of Rs. 3000 in the Court by way of dower during the period of iddat. In August 1979, the Magistrate directed the appellant to pay a princely sum of Rs. 25 per month to the respondent by way of maintenance.

It was alleged that the appellant earns a professional income of Rs. 60, 000 per year. In 1980, the respondent filed the revision application before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh. Consequently, the High Court enhanced the amount of Rs. 25 which was fixed by the Magistrate to Rs. 179.20 per month. In an appeal, the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court referred the matter to the 5 judges' bench.

Issues Raised:
  1. Whether Muslim Personal Law imposes no obligation upon the husband to provide for the maintenance of his divorced wife?
  2. Whether the right conferred by Section 125 of the Code prevails over personal law?
  3. Whether the definition of "wife" under Section 125(1)(b) of the code includes a divorced wife?
  4. Whether Mahr is an amount payable by the husband to the wife on divorce?

Contentions Of The Parties
Appellants:
The arguments advanced on behalf of the appellants that:
  1. Shah Bano [The Respondent] had ceased to be Mohd. Ahmed Khan's ["The Appellant"] wife due to the divorce given to her.
  2. In accordance with Sharia law, he was only supposed to provide her maintenance for the iddat period, a period of three months, after such separation.
  3. The appellant had already paid maintenance to her at the rate of Rs. 200 per month for about two years and´┐Ż he had deposited a sum of Rs. 3000 in the court by way of dower during the period of iddat.
  4. The marriage and divorce were to be governed by Muslim personal laws, over the CrPC, and he was thus no longer liable to maintain her.

Respondents:
The arguments advanced on behalf of the appellants that:
  1. According to Section 125 of CrPC, a man of means is supposed to maintain his divorced wife and children by her, if she is unable to provide for herself, until she remarries.
  2. Her ex-husband would be liable to provide her with maintenance under this provision, as she had no ability to maintain herself.
Analysis:
  • The Supreme Court made it clear in the case Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum that a Muslim woman who has been disowned or divorced by her husband and is unable to provide for herself or her children has the right to receive maintenance from him. There was a lot of criticism levelled at the Supreme Court at the time it handed down its verdict in the Shah Bano Case.
     
  • It was against humanity and a violation of basic human rights at the time that Muslim women, married or single, were denied even the most basic forms of personal freedom. In comparison to women in other parts of the world, Muslim women had a lower social status. As a group, they lacked the education and independence of mainstream females. Due to the difficulties they encountered, they lost confidence and knowledge of other religions.
     
  • In addition to these restrictions, they were also forbidden from working or furthering their education. Since they had to deal with these issues from a young age, it was only natural that they would require financial support from others during this trying period.
     
  • While the Supreme Court's ruling in the Shah Bano case was similar to that in other maintenance cases, the case's significance lay in the two "naked truths" that emerged during the proceedings. First, the spirituality of religious personal laws was criticized. Second, it was questioned whether the Uniform Civil Code is applied to all religions and their follies.
Judgment:
  • According to the Supreme Court, Section of the Code applies to all citizens without regard to religion, so Section 125(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure applies equally to Muslims. If there is a conflict between personal law and Section 125, the court said that Section 125 would apply. This section clarifies that the Muslim husband's obligation to support a financially dependent divorced wife after a divorce does not conflict with the provisions of Section 125.
  • Since a Muslim husband's responsibility to his divorced wife ends after the iddat period, the Supreme Court correctly ruled that the husband still owes alimony to his ex-wife if she cannot support herself financially even after the iddat period has passed. The court added that this rule, which is based on Islamic law, is wrong because a divorced wife in this case cannot provide for herself.
  • However, a husband's payment of Mehar upon divorce does not relieve him of his obligation to provide maintenance to his wife.
  • Following a lengthy trial, the Supreme Court ruled that a husband's legal responsibility for his divorced wife ends once she proves she can provide for herself. But if the wife is unable to support herself after the Iddat period, she may be eligible for alimony or maintenance payments under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code.


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