Freedom from Divorce
Divorce is almost always painful for all concerned, not least when young children are involved. It becomes even more complicated when the expectations of traditional ethnic or religious groups are concerned, particularly when transplanted to the hyper-modern urban communities of the Western world. In Islamic tradition, when it comes to the matter of divorce, there is another dramatic component involved: Once a man repeats the phrase talak, translated as “repudiation,” three times, divorce can then be granted. Contrarily, the process can be much more complicated when it is the woman seeking to initiate legal and final separation.
PERCEPTIONS OF DIVORCE
My psychiatric practice in an outer metropolitan section of Sydney has a high proportion of immigrants from Asian and Arab countries. I often see female patients from such backgrounds, many who are newly arrived and a proportion of whom are divorced.
Within Islam, divorce is traditionally initiated by the man. This fact can add further stigma to a woman going through a divorce, even when it is she that initiates it. The automatic assumption by many is that the woman was somehow unworthy, perhaps unable to have a child or unlovable in some way. Thankfully, however, some of these attitudes are being forced to shift, driven more by forces outside Islam and a new generation of women asserting an Islamic brand of feminism.
There are still countless stories of families becoming overwhelmed by shame and embarrassment when one of their children, particularly a daughter, cannot sustain a marriage. It can be particularly traumatic for first-generation parents, who are often more connected to traditional, community norms. I have an elderly patient with a South Asian background who barely leaves the house and is profoundly depressed because her youngest daughter’s arranged marriage ended within a year. Her sense of shame and perceived failure in the eyes of the community prevents her from facing the outside world. She hides it from her daughter, for she rationally knows that the divorce was the right thing to do, but she wears the blame of failure on her own shoulders.
The pain also overlaps with increasing divorce rates in communities such as those to which Muslims belong. Divorce among American Muslims, for example, stands at approximately 30 percent, which approaches the wider community norm, but is almost three times higher than the average rate in most Islamic countries. In my view, it makes sense that Muslim couples would approach the norm of their wider communities, particularly as Muslim women in Western countries have more opportunities to be independent after divorce and also have access to state sanctions and support. Moreover, the stigma has traditionally been greater due to stronger beliefs towards sustaining community cohesion often at the expense of individual, but the stigma is weakening.
DIVORCE AS LIBERATION
A less frequently discussed trend is how divorce for some Muslim women living in Western countries can, in fact, be a very liberating experience. In my practice, I have discovered through my clients that divorce, sometimes, allows women to be recused from community expectations and gender norms for the first time in their lives. I believe it is also an assertion of a new brand of Islamic feminism.
Take Samira, for example, a highly educated woman with a master’s degree from Bangladesh and some training in the United States. She underwent an arranged marriage five years ago with an engineer of Bangladeshi background who was raised in Australia. She agreed to the marriage because she expected to find herself situated in an enlightened, progressive environment. The reality she faced in wedlock turned out to be much different than what she expected. Indeed, she was taken by surprise.
“My mother-in-law expected me to be a slave—cooking, cleaning, and tending to her every need,” she said. “My ex-husband was subservient, too, fearful of upsetting the elders. I just couldn’t stand it.”
In the face of significant resistance from both families, she began divorce proceedings after two years of unhappy marriage. After the initial disappointment, her family in Bangladesh has since forgiven her. Samira’s life has continued: Currently, she is once again pursuing her studies, working full-time in retail, and forming new friendships and connections, mostly from outside the tight-knit Bangladeshi community.
“I’m not bound to community expectations when my life is in a big Western city,” she shared with me. Samira also added that it is easier for her because her parents are not based in the city in which she resides. While Samira describes herself as not terribly religious, for her parents’ and in-laws’ sake, she undertook both a civil divorce and an Islamic one. She said the dissolution of her marriage was only possible because her husband gave her permission to be the delegate that moved forward with the divorce.
Another woman, Maha, divulged that she was only able to divorce her former partner after she was sure of her legal rights and of financial support from her extended family. In spite of living in the West, the Pakistani community to which she was attached was deeply traditional, more traditional in many respects than the middle class of Lahore, Pakistan, where her parents were born.
Maha made the important point that she felt her attitude towards divorce was markedly different than that of some older relatives, even those who themselves endured a breakdown in their marriage. According to Maha, the moral stigma in prior generations was too great, and divorce was viewed only as a failure. The blame was always placed upon the woman for not conforming or adapting in some way, even to intolerable situations.
“For me, even within Islamic law, I see divorce as more an entitlement,” she says, noting divorce is permissible when marriage is no longer fitting the purpose it should serve. In Maha’s case, she said the environment was not healthy for her children.
DIVORCE, ISLAMIC STYLE
An oft-quoted hadith relates a story where a young woman complains to the Prophet Muhammad that her father married her to a man against her will. Muhammad tells the girl that she was free to choose or to reject her husband. The girl chooses to stay with her husband but explains that she wanted to be sure of her rights in the matter.
Another legal path to Islamic divorce presents itself if and when a woman appeals to a Shari‘a law court. Unfortunately, this is usually a long and drawn-out path with administrative hurdles that can deter many women from going through the hassle. There is also a perception that, at every stage, the woman is scrutinized intensively and often negatively.
In the past, divorced women were often reluctant to show their face to the broader community, such was the intensity of the stigma and depth of the shame. For example, Samira revealed to me that her first year after getting divorced was deeply distressing. Any interactions with community friends often involved blunt and pointed questions, judgment, and implication of blame toward her.
“There is still a set of people who think it is up to women to always make it work,” she said, although she qualified that statement with her observation that this is less often the case among younger people.
Furthermore, it remains difficult for unattached women to venture alone in many Muslim countries, for they put themselves at risk of verbal harassment, or much worse.
A WIDER NET
An interesting new variable in trends regarding Muslim women, divorce, and stigma, however, is the Internet. The Internet allows for clandestine connection and less dependence on a woman’s local community determined by geography, clan, or class. Maha shared with me that she has been able to meet men for friendship through social networking websites. Indeed, a search online for divorced women in Bangladesh reveals several sites featuring advertisements from single, divorced, and even married women with spouses working overseas. These women are seeking friendships, casual encounters, or more serious relationships. It is likely that mullahs and more extremist groups are either unaware of or have actively avoided confronting such sites. In such a traditional community, the advertisements from married women are particularly interesting. On the other hand, Bangladesh is also a country with one of the highest rates of cheap, contracted laborers working primarily in the Middle East. They are often away from spouses and families for many years, perhaps with an annual return visit only. While there is an expectation that the women—in spite of feeling lonely—should just remain stoic and supportive, the Internet is allowing them to rebel against such a straitjacket of expectations.
Likewise, all the most popular matrimonial sites for Muslims such as Shaadi.com and Muslima.com include sections for divorced women. I believe this suggests that there is a growing acceptance of such a status amongst sections of the community.
The fact that divorce can be beneficial for all parties on occasion, particularly when it is the only solution to incessant conflict in the household, has long been accepted in Western communities. That is not to say it cannot be very damaging to all concerned and leave an indelible mark, especially on young children. For many in Muslim communities, however, the stigma of leaving a marriage continues to vastly outweigh any possible benefits to be derived, particularly for women. To be sure, there remain innumerable Muslim women who are trapped in miserable unions and by cultural expectations, which they feel they cannot defy. In my practice, though, I see a rising trend in women of Muslim backgrounds who, after divorce, express that they feel liberated. Their foray into the arena of social outcast, in turn, allows these divorced women to detach from the strict expectations and prison of traditions dictated by religion and culture.
A new generation of Muslim women is asserting the right to divorce within an Islamic context. These individuals are actively reinterpreting the religious texts for a modern age, and are being aided by modern communications technology to free them from the shackles of community and geography. As a mental healthcare professional and a women’s rights advocate, I view this development as a source of great optimism.