After the Shah bano case[1], in which the supreme court allowed to divorced muslim women to ask for maintenance even after iddat period, an uproar created in India on the issue that this case is an attack on the freedom to enjoy personal laws in personal matters to muslim community. To make this case ineffective, Rajiv Gandhi Government brought ‘Muslim women (Protection of rights on divorce) Act, 1986.

Shah Bano Begum

Object and Reasons of the act

The Statement of Objects & Reasons to the bill, which resulted in the Act, reads as follows:

“The Supreme Court, in Mohd. Ahmed Khan vs. Shah Bano Begum & Ors. [AIR 1985 SC 945), has held that although the Muslim Law limits the husband’s liability to provide for maintenance of the divorced wife to the period of iddat, it does not contemplate or countenance the situation envisaged by Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

The Court held that it would be incorrect and unjust to extend the above principle of Muslim Law to cases in which the divorced wife is unable to maintain herself. The Court, therefore, came to the conclusion that if the divorced wife is able to maintain herself, the husband’s liability ceases with the expiration of the period of iddat but if she is unable to maintain herself after the period of iddat, she is entitled to have recourse to Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

This decision has led to some controversy as to the obligation of the Muslim husband to pay maintenance to the divorced wife. Opportunity has, therefore, been taken to specify the rights which a Muslim divorced woman is entitled to at the time of divorce and to protect her interests.”

Provisions of the Act

The Act provides for the following among other things, namely: –

Section 3

(a) a Muslim divorced woman shall be entitled to a reasonable and fair provision and maintenance within the period of iddat by her former husband and in case she maintains the children born to her before or after her divorce, such reasonable provision and maintenance would be extended to a period of two years from the dates of birth of the children.

She will also be entitled to mahr or dower and all the properties given to her by her relatives, friends, husband and the husbands relatives. If the above benefits are not given to her at the time of divorce, she is entitled to apply to the Magistrate for an order directing her former husband to provide for such maintenance, the payment of mahr or dower or the deliver of the properties;

Section 4

(b) where a Muslim divorced woman is unable to maintain herself after the period of iddat, the Magistrate is empowered to make an order for the payment of maintenance by her relatives who would be entitled to inherit her property on her death according to Muslim Law in the proportions in which they would inherit her property.

If any one of such relatives is unable to pay his or her share on the ground of his or her not having the means to pay, the Magistrate would direct the other relatives who have sufficient means to pay the shares of these relatives also. But where, a divorced woman has no relatives or such relatives or any one of them has not enough means to pay the maintenance or the other relatives who have been asked to pay the shares of the defaulting relatives also do not have the means to pay the shares of the defaulting relatives the Magistrate would order the State Wakf Board to pay the maintenance ordered by him or the shares of the relatives who are unable to pay.

Section 5

(c) Apart from this, the act also gives the opportunity to muslim couples to be governed under section 125 of Criminal Procedure Code. If a divorced woman and her former husband declare, by affidavit or any other declaration in writing, either jointly or separately, that they would prefer to be governed by the provisions of sections 125 to 128 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, and file such affidavit or declaration in the court hearing the application of maintenance, the Magistrate shall dispose of such application accordingly.

Challenges to the act  

The Act could not save itself from controversy and it was challenged in the famous case of ‘Daniel Latifi v. Union of India (2001)’.

The main contention for the challenge was that the Act is an un-Islamic, unconstitutional and it has the potential of suffocating the muslim women and it undermines the secular character, which is the basic feature of the Constitution; that there is no rhyme or reason to deprive the muslim women from the applicability of the provisions of Section 125 CrPC and consequently, the present Act must be held to be discriminatory and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution; that excluding the application of Section 125 CrPC is violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution.

Supreme court observations on the conditions of women in Indian society

Before considering the constitutional validity of the Act, the court made following observations on the conditions of women in Indian society-

“In our society, whether they belong to the majority or the minority group, what is apparent is that there exists a great disparity in the matter of economic resourcefulness between a man and a woman. Our society is male dominated both economically and socially and women are assigned, invariably, a dependant role, irrespective of the class of society to which she belongs. A woman on her marriage very often, though highly educated, gives up her all other avocations and entirely devotes herself to the welfare of the family, in particular she shares with her husband, her emotions, sentiments, mind and body, and her investment in the marriage is her entire life a sacramental sacrifice of her individual self and is far too enormous to be measured in terms of money.

When a relationship of this nature breaks up, in what manner we could compensate her so far as emotional fracture or loss of investment is concerned, there can be no answer. It is a small solace to say that such a woman should be compensated in terms of money towards her livelihood and such a relief which partakes basic human rights to secure gender and social justice is universally recognised by persons belonging to all religions and it is difficult to perceive that Muslim law intends to provide a different kind of responsibility by passing on the same to those unconnected with the matrimonial life such as the heirs who were likely to inherit the property from her or the Wakf boards. Such an approach appears to us to be a kind of distortion of the social facts.

Solutions to such societal problems of universal magnitude pertaining to horizons of basic human rights, culture, dignity and decency of life and dictates of necessity in the pursuit of social justice should be invariably left to be decided on considerations other than religion or religious faith or beliefs or national, sectarian, racial or communal constraints. Bearing this aspect in mind, we have to interpret the provisions of the Act in question.”

Analysis of the act

Application of the act

As the court also said, a reading of the Act will indicate that it codifies and regulates the obligations due to a Muslim woman divorcee by putting them outside the scope of Section 125 CrPC as the divorced woman has been defined as Muslim woman who was married according to Muslim law and has been divorced by or has obtained divorce from her husband in accordance with the Muslim law.

But the Act does not apply to a Muslim woman whose marriage is solemnized either under the Indian Special Marriage Act, 1954 or a Muslim woman whose marriage was dissolved either under Indian Divorce Act, 1969 or the Indian Special Marriage Act, 1954. The Act does not apply to the deserted and separated Muslim wives.

The maintenance under the Act is to be paid by the husband for the duration of the iddat period and this obligation does not extend beyond the period of iddat. Once the relationship with the husband has come to an end with the expiry of the iddat period, the responsibility devolves upon the relatives of the divorcee. The Act follows Muslim personal law in determining which relatives are responsible under which circumstances. If there are no relatives, or no relatives are able to support the divorcee, then the Court can order the State Wakf Boards to pay the maintenance.

Principle Provision

The important section in the Act is Section 3 which provides that divorced woman is entitled to obtain from her former husband maintenance, provision and mahr, and to recover from his possession her wedding presents and dowry and authorizes the magistrate to order payment or restoration of these sums or properties.

If the provisions are so read, the Act would exclude from liability for post-iddat period maintenance to a man who has already discharged his obligations of both reasonable and fair provision and maintenance by paying these amounts in a lump sum to his wife, in addition to having paid his wife’s mahr and restored her dowry.

The Interpretation  

According to the court, the provisions enacted under the Act are a reasonable and fair provision and maintenance to be made and paid as provided under Section 3(1)(a) of the Act and these expressions cover different things,

firstly, by the use of two different verbs to be made and paid to her within the iddat period, it is clear that a fair and reasonable provision is to be made while maintenance is to be paid;

secondly, Section 4 of the Act, which empowers the magistrate to issue an order for payment of maintenance to the divorced woman against various of her relatives, contains no reference to provision.

Obviously, the right to have a fair and reasonable provision in her favour is a right enforceable only against the woman’s former husband, and in addition to what he is obliged to pay as maintenance.

The court noticed that Section 3(3) of the Act would be with reference to the needs of the divorced woman, the means of the husband, and the standard of life the woman enjoyed during the marriage and there is no reason why such provision could not take the form of the regular payment of alimony to the divorced woman, though it may look ironical that the enactment intended to reverse the decision in Shah Banos case, actually codifies the very rationale contained therein.

The court concluded its analysis on the note that even under the Act, the parties agreed that the provisions of Section 125 CrPC would still be attracted and even otherwise, the Magistrate has been conferred with the power to make appropriate provision for maintenance and, therefore, what could be earlier granted by a Magistrate under Section 125 CrPC would now be granted under the very Act itself. This being the position, the Act cannot be held to be unconstitutional…….The enactment though purports to overcome the view expressed in Shah Bano’s case in relation to a divorced Muslim woman getting something by way of maintenance in the nature of Mata is indeed the statutorily recognised by making provision under the Act for the purpose of the maintenance but also for provision.

Decision of the court

The court upheld the validity of the act and made following conclusions-

1) a Muslim husband is liable to make reasonable and fair provision for the future of the divorced wife which obviously includes her maintenance as well. Such a reasonable and fair provision extending beyond the iddat period must be made by the husband within the iddat period in terms of Section 3(1)(a) of the Act.

2) Liability of Muslim husband to his divorced wife arising under Section 3(1)(a) of the Act to pay maintenance is not confined to iddat period.

3) A divorced Muslim woman who has not remarried and who is not able to maintain herself after iddat period can proceed as provided under Section 4 of the Act against her relatives who are liable to maintain her in proportion to the properties which they inherit on her death according to Muslim law from such divorced woman including her children and parents. If any of the relatives being unable to pay maintenance, the Magistrate may direct the State Wakf Board established under the Act to pay such maintenance.

4) The provisions of the Act do not offend Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution of India.

The rule of construction which the court used to validate the act

Before concluding the article, it is interesting to note that the court also found some of the provisions of the act unreasonable.

As per the observations of the court, the provisions of the Act depriving the divorced Muslim women of such a right to maintenance from her husband and providing for her maintenance to be paid by the former husband only for the period of iddat and thereafter to make her run from pillar to post in search of her relatives one after the other and ultimately to knock at the doors of the Wakf Board does not appear to be reasonable and fair substitute of the provisions of Section 125 CrPC.

Such deprivation of the divorced Muslim women of their right to maintenance from their former husbands under the beneficial provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure which are otherwise available to all other women in India cannot be stated to have been effected by a reasonable, right, just and fair law and……The provisions prima facie, therefore, appear to be violative of Article 14 of the Constitution mandating equality and equal protection of law to all persons otherwise similarly circumstanced and also violative of Article 15 of the Constitution which prohibits any discrimination on the ground of religion as the Act would obviously apply to Muslim divorced women only and solely on the ground of their belonging to the Muslim religion.”

But the court upheld validity of the act by applying the following rule of construction-

“It is well settled that on a rule of construction a given statute will become ultra vires or unconstitutional and, therefore, void, whereas another construction which is permissible, the statute remains effective and operative the court will prefer the latter on the ground that Legislature does not intend to enact unconstitutional laws. We think, the latter interpretation should be accepted and, therefore, the interpretation placed by us results in upholding the validity of the Act. It is well settled that when by appropriate reading of an enactment the validity of the Act can be upheld, such interpretation is accepted by courts and not the other way.”


Daniel Latifi v. Union of India (2001) 7 SCC 740

The muslim women (protection of rights on divorce) act, 1986

[1] Mohd. Ahmad Khan v. Shah Bano begum (1985)