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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE RIGHTS OF MARRIAGE

A one-woman play about divorce has caused a stir in Singapore's Little India

By Andrea Hamilton/Singapore


NARGIS BANU IS A divorced mother of two, a clerk and a first-time actress. Not a conventional target of hate mail and death threats. But the former housewife has become just that since starring in a play designed to expose the dark side of some marriages. A 90-minute, one-woman performance, Talaq is really the story of Banu's broken marriage - and that of 11 other Indian Muslim women like herself. Talaq, which loosely translates as "divorce," gives voice to the abuse and misery they have endured in silence. Though there have been just three shows so far (all to packed houses), the Tamil-language drama has enraged sectors of the Indian Muslim community in Singapore.

Some critics have called for a ban, others have threatened the play's writer and director, Elangovan, with the fatwa fate of Salman Rushdie. The play "brings disgrace to Islamic principles and its values," fumes the Tamil Muslim Jama'at, a religious group. Men from the community have held a series of private meetings to condemn Banu and the work, which has also been released in book form. Anonymous letters promise dire consequences for its "infidel" initiators. There are nasty phone calls at work almost every day. A typical message: "The community is out to get you."

But Banu is unrepentant. "I knew this would happen, but I can't just keep living in fear [of speaking out]," she says. "I want positive change, basic human rights." The 36-year-old learned that from bitter experience. She came to Singapore from India about two decades ago as a child bride. A dutiful wife, she cooked and cleaned for the family, and raised two sons. Then Banu discovered her husband was unfaithful and confronted him about the affair. That was when he turned on her.

"It just wasn't right," Banu says. While her divorce was pending, she went to the Indian Muslim community to seek redress for ill-treated wives like herself. Under Islamic law, divorce becomes effective when talaq is first uttered in the wife's presence. Singapore requires that it also be registered in shariah court. After that, the couple have a three-month cooling-off period during which they can reconcile. But once the third talaq is declared, the marriage is irrevocably ended.

Banu got nowhere with her campaign. Other women were sympathetic but too afraid to speak out. Community leaders counseled her not to make trouble. Her imam (religious leader) urged her to accept the divorce quietly. Elangovan was her last resort. She wanted to tell her story and the Tamil writer seemed just the person to help her do it. Elangovan, a non-Muslim Tamil, was suspicious when Banu sought him out. His social satires have got him into trouble before, and the award-winning writer wondered if he was being set up for a fall. "My first question," he says, "was: 'Why me, a playwright with the adjective controversial attached to my name?'" But Banu's palpable desire to get Indian Muslim women to take control of their lives won him over. Besides, he confesses a "soft spot for the underdog." Both knew the project would come under attack. Adultery, marital violence and rape, already sensitive subjects, would be even more controversial in the context of a Muslim marriage. Which is why Elangovan opted for a monologue, to be performed by Banu herself. (He guided her through three-months of intensive acting lessons.) "That way only the two of us will get in trouble," Elangovan explains. And they did.

Yet the Singapore authorities, who vet such work carefully because of communal "sensitivities," approved both publication and performance. There were no complaints from Malay ministers who attended Talaq's premiere. In fact, the honest intensity of Banu's portrayal as a betrayed wife moved the audience to tears. So why the outrage? Mainly, it seems, because Banu committed the sin of going public with the tales of ill-treated women within the minority community. What's worse, she's doing it on stage. The Tamil Muslim Jama'at objects in particular to what it views as the unfavorable depiction of Islamic marriage. "The book mentioned several times that the woman is a slave to her husband. This is not true," says Jama'at president Mohammed Ismail. "In Islam, both sexes have equal rights."

Precisely the point, counters Banu. Real life for many married women does not jibe with the religious ideal. "This is not our life, it is not in our religion," she says. "The family is supposed to play a leading role in our life; our community should be worried about the problems facing women." Abused wives should not allow oppressive social mores and hypocritical interpretations of Islam to trap them in bad marriages. That theme is central to the play, which revolves around a woman, Nisha, who applies to the court for protection and maintenance after her husband beats her and abandons her for a non-Muslim wife. The character describes her pain as family members and religious leaders condemn her action: "Everyone was circling, ridiculing me. None of them was interested in my rightful indignation."

As Nisha ends her tale, she steps out of her burda, a heavy black robe worn by Muslim women - symbolically casting off her oppressive marriage - and walks into a green light. Several critics have taken special offense at this, viewing the action as a rejection of Islam. Quite the opposite, says Elangovan, who reread the Koran several times to get a good grasp of the principles. "Green is the color of Islam," he points out. "She is discarding male domination and acquiring a voice for women."

The drama has delighted a number of Muslim women. Some have come up to encourage Banu - though privately, she says. The play is gaining recognition elsewhere too: Malaysia's national literary agency has translated it into Malay for an ASEAN drama anthology. Meantime, Banu's sons, aged 16 and 18, are taking the furor in their stride. "They are very supportive," she says. "Not just because I'm mommy, but because they know I'm right."


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