NEW DELHI, Sept. 26 (AFP)--A plan to empower Muslim women in India, which has the world's second-biggest Islamic population, is being backed by clerics and activists, who say women behind the veil have few rights, especially in marriage.

The highly influential All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), a quasi-religious body, has proposed sweeping changes in Islamic marriage and divorce laws, which will be discussed this month in the southern city of Bangalore.

If the measures are approved by senior Muslim clerics, they will be sent to the government, which in turn is more or less duty-bound to turn them into law.

The AIMPLB has for the first time suggested that women should have the right to initiate divorce proceedings on five grounds.

Under existing law, Muslim women can only initiate legal proceedings for separation, not divorce.

The board says a woman should be able to file for divorce if her husband's whereabouts are not known for two years; if he fails to provide maintenance for one year; if the husband is of unsound mind; if the couple have been separated for more than a year; or if the husband suffers from a virulent venereal disease or treats her cruelly.

It also stressed that men could no longer divorce their spouses by simply uttering the word talaq, or divorce, three times in a row, specifying that the procedure would have to be spread over three months.

The Board said the husband could not have conjugal relations during this time--which covers three periods of tuhr, or purity, the time between menstrual cycles.

Syed Ahmad Bukhari, the deputy cleric of New Delhi's Jama Masjid, India's best-known mosque, told AFP he welcomed the move.

"Women should have the same rights as men especially if they are wronged or their rights trampled upon. She should get justice," he said.

"If Islam is hard, it can be soft as well. Unfortunately many clerics interpret Islam a little too harshly, depriving women of many rights."

Zoya Hasan, a leading Muslim women's activist and feminist, said the proposed changes were a small but significant step forward.

"They are clearly not enough, but they constitute a small step and an important one," she said.

"The Muslim woman is much less equal than her Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian counterpart. Even the traditional Hindu laws regarding marriage, divorce, and the inheritance of women were oppressive but they were changed."

Muslims are India's largest religious minority, comprising 125 million people of a total population of more than one billion. India has the world's largest Muslim population after Indonesia.

Changes in Muslim law are difficult to implement, as former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi discovered in the 1980s when he tried to give Muslim women the right to claim maintenance after divorce.

The abortive move followed a landmark case filed by a septuagenarian Muslim woman named Shah Bano, whose husband had divorced her. Gandhi hastily withdrew the proposed changes in the so-called Muslim Personal Law after strong protests from fundamentalists.

A senior Muslim cleric told AFP on condition of anonymity that he was confident the amendments would be approved by the Muslim clergy this time round.

"Islam is going through some problems. Alcohol is becoming a curse, although our religion proscribes it. Many men divorce their women while drunk but repent later. The three-month period will prevent things like that from happening.

"Divorce has to be taken seriously. It can ruin two families--those of the husband and the wife--and have a traumatic effect on the children."

Professor Akhdural Wasey, a scholar of Islamic studies at New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia university, was also optimistic the changes would get the clergy's seal of approval.

"The proposals are in consonance with the Qur'an, the Hadidh, or the sayings, observations, and actions of Prophet Muhammad. I am confident of an ijma, or consensus on the issue," Wasey told AFP.

"All these things are rational and can help all Muslims."

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