India's Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that a Muslim practice allowing men to instantly divorce a wife is illegal, thereby banning a practice already prohibited in more than 20 Muslim countries, including neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh.
By a narrow vote of 3 to 2, a special five-man bench of the apex court ruled that the practice known as "triple talaq" violated Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality under the law.
The practice, whose legitimacy under Islamic law is a source of dispute even among Islamic scholars, permits a Muslim man to divorce his wife by repeating the word "talaq" three times.
Only Muslim men have been able to divorce their spouses that way in India, as Muslim women were required to petition a court to grant divorce.
According to the 2011 national census, India was home to 172 million Muslims, giving it the world's third-largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan. Muslims composed just over 14 percent of the Indian population at that point.
The practice of "triple talaq" persisted in India decades after being banned in many Muslim-majority nations because of the hesitancy of the government and courts to interfere in matters of religious practice, a potential powder keg in a country riven by sectarian tensions, suspicions and animosity.
However, the Supreme Court of India decided in mid-2016 to examine if Islamic laws governing marriage and inheritance violated the rights of women, and it established a multi-faith bench of five judges -- a Hindu, a Muslim, a Sikh, a Christian and a Zoroastrian -- to examine the matter. None of the five justices was a woman.
The special bench turned its attention to "triple talaq" this past May by hearing a petition filed by seven women who had all been divorced that way.
The Hindustan Times reported that the All India Muslim Personal Law Board asked the court to let Muslims settle the issue themselves.
"It says the practice is protected by the right to religious freedom and courts cannot supplant their interpretations over the text of scriptures," it reported.
On Tuesday, the ruling banning the practice was hailed widely as a victory for fairer treatment of Muslim women in India, especially the tens of millions of impoverished women whose precarious lives could be shattered through sudden divorce.
"We are very happy, we have won. It is a historic day. The Muslim women were so far deprived of a law which is gender-just, which upholds our rights in marriage and in family," said Zakia Soman, a representative of the Indian Muslim Women's Movement and one of the petitioners.
Arshiya Ismail, a 45-year-old school teacher in Delhi and victim of triple talaq, said the ruling was a welcome blow to male dominance in Indian society.
"It was much awaited and should have come much earlier. The present day government has often talked of empowerment of women. This is a first concrete move in this direction, and will provide much needed succor to women who have suffered...and were forced to live away from their husband's family without maintenance through no fault of her own," Arshiya said.
Rehana, 39, another victim of triple talaq, said: "In any other society, divorce is granted through a proper and well laid down process. But a section of Muslim men in India resort to this ill practice of triple divorce with the 'tacit' support of the personal laws of the Muslim community and their biased religious leaders. A large number of Muslim women have suffered due to this, and this practice should end now."