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Islam, family planning, and gender

Islam, family planning, and gender

Author: Faizan Mustafa
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 5, 2003

Does Islam permit family planning? Is the recent decision by the Supreme Court of India an interference in the Muslim Personal Law? How far do Indian Muslims practice family planning? What are the implications of this on gender issues? How should Muslims react to the court judgement? These are questions of vital importance for the future of India. In recent weeks, the Supreme Court has delivered two judgements which are bound to have a bearing on Muslims of India.

The Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutional validity of the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act's provision which disqualifies a member of panchayat from becoming sarpanch if he has more than two children. The court rejected the plea of several Muslim petitioners who challenged the law as violative to freedom of religion, as enshrined in Article 25 of the Constitution.

Use of birth control in Islam is part of the wide complex of its ideas and social institutions. The Islamic attitude towards family planning consists only of the opinion of jurists since the Quran says nothing about contraception. Two contradictory views are presented by theologians. The conservative group is led by Ibn Hazm and Maulana Maudodi, and the liberal view, which has the support of a large number of scholars and is led by Imam Ghazali. The former group quotes the Quranic verse: "Kill not your children, on a plea of want. We provide sustenance for you and for them." The other group also quotes the Quran: "And one (God's) sign is, that he has created for you your mates from yourself, that you may dwell in tranquillity with them, and has ordained between you love and mercy."

In view of absence of a religious text, Ghazali discussed contraception from premises rooted more in profane biology and economics than in strictly religious sources. Prohibition in Islam was possible only by adducing an original text or by analogy with a given text. Ghazali argued that while abortion and infanticide were crimes against an existing being, contraception was different. While Ghazali accepted some of the motives for birth control, he rejected others as objectionable. Use of contraception for fear of having daughters is not allowed in Islam. Similarly, its use by women for personal reasons - such as that they dislike pregnancy or because they have a fetish for absolute cleanliness, or simply because they did not bother about child birth - are not permitted either. It must, however, be noted that it was the intent that was objectionable, not the concept of family planning per se.

Ghazali supported use of contraceptives with one's wife to protect her from dangers of child-birth, or simply to preserve her beauty. He also supported the economic reasons for family planning such as wish to limit the family to a manageable size. Another valid reason for practicing contraception in Islam is the well-being of children. The presence of a nursing infant was a major reason for birth control. A new pregnancy set an upper limit on lactation length, resulting in palpable harm to the child being nursed. Even the Quran impliedly supports age differ-ence between children: "And mothers shall suckle their children two full years to complete breast feeding."

It is disgraceful that fanatics continue to malign Indian Muslims for possessing large families. Few years back, a survey was conducted by Operations Research Group about variations in acceptance of family planning in India. It was found that as against 45.5 per cent Hindus, only 33.8 per cent Muslims practice family planning. However, the fact not to be ignored is, as against this national average, 64.4 per cent Muslims in Kerala practice family planning as compared to 17.3 per cent in Rajasthan, 18.1 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, and a mere 14.6 per cent in Bihar. Thus, the size of family has nothing to do with one's religion but with one's education. It's the higher rate of literacy in Kerala which has to be credited for the acceptance of family planning there. According to the above survey, the rate of decadal increase in family planning acceptance amongst Muslims was 300 per cent as against only 264 per cent amongst Hindus.

The court's decision on two-child norm is on sound legal footing as the right to vote or to be elected sarpanch is not a fundamental but a statutory right. Therefore, the legislature can curtail it for public good. But the court has completely ignored the aspect of gender balance. China's experience of one-child norm should be taken into account. As a result of that policy, China today has the worst sex ratio in the world. It has 20 per cent more boys than girls in the group zero to four. Some Indian states are already facing this problem. Punjab, for instance, has just 793 girls to 1,000 boys in zero to six age group. Haryana has 820:1000; Gujarat, 878:1000; and, Orissa, 950:1000. It is submitted that it is women who are victims of such coercive family planning policies. In any legislative move on the issue, therefore, gender concerns must be kept in mind.
 


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