Divorce, still a social stigma!

It was a hot summer in the year 2003, Fatima*, 40, was waiting for her soon-to-be ex-husband, who was one of the most powerful lawyers in the district of Sheikhupura. He had filed for divorce when she refused to give her consent for a second marriage and demanded answers about his many affairs. She had filed for child support but the reach of the court was found to be limited against a strong and well-connected man. The only thing in her possession was her house which her husband was belligerently trying to take possession of and telling her to take the kids and leave the city. She took a long sigh and steeled herself to fight him no matter what the price she may have to pay.

This was not an isolated case. There are thousands of such stories where women undergoing divorce face monumental societal pressure. Many are forced to return to abusive husbands, with instructions to compromise and sacrifice. In 2009, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported that “up to 90% women in Pakistan face some degree of domestic violence in their families, from husband or in-laws”.

Such domestic violence is not just confined to the rural poor; the US Department of State quotes a 2008 report that states that “nearly 50 per cent of wives in developed urban areas admitted that their husbands beat them”.

Often women trying to find a way out are targeted by the abusive husbands as many consider any form of dissolution of marriage proceeding initiated by the victim to be an insult and it is also documented that women who have attempted to divorce their violent husbands have been killed, often to satisfy their bruised ego and injured pride.

The family, which should act as the shield and as a protection, create extreme pressure on such women to back down and if she refuses then many either condemn her to isolation or display violent behaviour often resulting in cases of honour killing as if they have committed an unmentionable sin irrespective of whether they are from rural homes or urban areas.

Our society operates in a bubble where they believe that proceeding with a divorce is a devastating act against the society itself and women should make sure to never take this path. If the divorce is initiated by a woman’s husband then she faces a severe character assassination where society, in a display of patriarchy belittles the woman or defends the husband. Or even worse where the police and judge both see the issue as a family matter that should be solved between the unhappy couple and the law should not interfere. In many cases of domestic violence, the police have been found discouraging the wife from taking any legal action and often telling her that it may lead to a divorce which would see her becoming nothing short of a stigma. The courts stand no better where the judges often pressurise the wife into taking her case back and resolving the issue at home.

The most mainstream concept found in our courts and amongst our lawyers is that divorce is a sin and anybody that helps a husband and wife resolve their issue, has earned great rewards for the hereafter. This creates an insurmountable pressure on the wife as the judge, the opposing counsel, and her counsel, all advise her to take the case back, compromise and go back to her husband. This monumental pressure cannot be understated. I have seen many women simply giving up and caving into the pressure and returning to their lives. Their eyes dead and demoralised, they simply, through unsaid words, declare that they cannot fight against an entire system that is made for the sole purpose of protecting a marriage no matter how destructive or abusive it may be. They return to their abusive husbands and suffer through a life of violence and are under even more pressure from society to remain in that marriage.

The lives of the women divorced by their husbands are no better. Often given the societal position of a ‘lesser women’, she is deemed to have loose morals and is told to marry quickly to any proposal that now comes her way. She faces constant hostile advances from other males and is spurned by the women of our society who believe that her presence would bring negative energy causing divorces in their households. This is especially true during wedding ceremonies, where divorced women are seen as a bad omen for the new bride.

More often than not, these women are the financially weaker party of a divorce proceeding and are often deprived of custody on a financial basis. For their survival and to keep their children, these women are often forced to seek employment, many of whom do not have proper qualifications since their parents, in their eternal wisdom, thought it was prudent to marry her as soon as possible. Her search for work does not earn her any sympathy and is often used as evidence for her supposedly loose morals. If the ex-husband is around then he will also probably use this as a vindication of his decision for divorce. This is especially true for rural women. If the woman does not own any private property then she will find most landlords refusing to rent her any apartments, often using reasons such as her living alone would ruin the environment and that they are looking for families and not women with ‘loose morals’.

Banks have often refused to open accounts for divorced women, citing lack of financial stability and proper income, often demanding verification from a male member of their family. Those that do earn money undergo vigorous investigations to make sure that they are not involved in any clandestine activities. The state has no programmes to help such women and any attempt faces severe backlash and is presented as giving support to a sinful act. Islamic law contains two major financial aspects for the aid of divorce women which are mata’aul talaaq (maintenance provided after the period of iddat expires, often lasting till a woman’s remarriage or death) and ujratul misl (compensation for household chores). Yet both these Islamic concepts are absent in the Islamic Republic.

These are some of the common problems that women going through a divorce face, regardless of who has initiated the process and the reaction of our society can be observed from this simple fact that our analysts and clergy openly propagate how divorce is a social sin and its rise in numbers is due to loose morals of women, freedom of thought and education. Our politicians stand no different as our prime minister, the choice of the ‘educated’ Pakistanis, recently demonised divorce as a social evil whose roots are found in vulgarity and obscenity.

This concept is the symptom of our patriarchal bubble in which the Pakistani male lives in. The problems faced by women undergoing divorce are real and should not be made light of. Their struggle should not be declared as vulgar and the cruelty that they face should be condemned and opposed rather than protected under concepts of ‘rewards’.   

I have seen these women in courts, I have seen them in Union Councils and I have seen them struggle and fight and I can testify that there exists no vulgarity, nor obscenity in their struggle. Their struggles are genuine and they are the true victims of the process. It is time we stand by these oppressed women and give them the support they deserve so that they know that they do not face this world alone. The sanctity of marriage is not found in abusive marriages or forced marriages. It is found in a society that treats women as equals.