x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Women are still too often the losers in divorce matters

Many women have had to conceal their divorces or continue in fragmented or even abusive marriages, just to please people.

Lamia just got a verbal divorce, after a three-year battle for one.

She cannot tell her parents for fear of being disowned, cut out of their will or, worse, being made to move back home with them at the age of 39. Unfortunately, many Arab women find themselves in situations like this.

With divorce rates soaring in the Arab world, including the UAE, the focus on deterring people from divorce is higher than ever. While various figures have been offered by different authorities in the UAE, they all agree that divorce is on the rise. The culprits are said to be family and society. Many women have had to conceal their divorces or continue in fragmented or even abusive marriages, just to please people. Others remain separated under one roof, with their secrets concealed behind fake smiles.

When it comes to divorce in the Arab world, three forces come to play: religion, sharia law, and culture. The last of these is the dominant one. Today, it is not unusual to find parents supporting their cultural claims through religion, even if their arguments are theologically baseless. And it's not only parents. Judges delay court proceedings in the hope of reconciliation, even when this is unrealistic.

For instance, Lamia simply no longer loves her husband. Her parents believe this is not a good reason for divorce, since a couple who marry young can experience love later in a relationship. In religion, they say, marriage is a sacred bond that should not be broken by something as irrelevant as lost love. But according to the UAE Fatwa Centre, this is a good enough reason to seek a divorce.

Lamia then tried to use another "stronger" reason to back her case, she told her parents that her husband drinks alcohol. They waved this off saying that could be remedied. But according to the Fatwa Centre, this is another legitimate reason to seek a divorce.

The irony is that when Lamia told her parents this, their response was that it is haram (forbidden religiously) to leave your children with no father. Even though all parties know this is not true, as soon as the word haram is thrown into a conversation, the fight must end.

There is good reason to believe that being raised by both of your parents is better than just one, but nothing good can come out of a child having to live through parental fights, witnessing their mother offended, insulted or abused. Is it not better to be brought up by two separated parents than under the roof of a dysfunctional couple?

A lot of people forget that women have the right to a divorce over the simplest of reasons, such as their husband being too smelly.

So if Sharia allows it, where does culture come in? To understand this, one must look at how society views a divorced woman. Not only is she treated as damaged goods, but for some reason it is always believed to be the woman's fault that a marriage ended.

Of 134 UAE residents surveyed by the polling company YouGov last year, it was found that divorced women are labelled as unwanted, are pitied and are usually blamed for having failed to keep their former husbands happy. The 2,007 people surveyed across the Arab world gave similar responses. Forget the idea that a woman can bounce back from a divorce in the judgmental eyes of society.

Husbands, however, have a second chance at bachelorhood. And even if they are still married, they are allowed to marry another. Besides, it is in a man's best interest to drag out a marriage and leave the wife to fight for the divorce, as this would free him from having to the pay the usually more expensive late dowry.

At an event I attended a couple of years ago, an Emirati judge said it did not make sense that westerners would come to him seeking a divorce yet would be respectful to one another, but when Arabs came in, drama followed.

This could happen because a marriage has been stretched out far longer than needed, leaving only anger and resentment. I blame the parents if they had any hand in protracting the marriage, or forcing the couple back together after the damage had become too deep to mend. Parents are often concerned about what people will say, rather than their daughter's opinion.

This makes the husband see a new side to his wife; a side that should obey him. When she is weakened by her parents' wishes, it is easy for the man to dismiss commitment or respect for his wife. If his wife's parents do not support or respect her wishes, then why should he?

Too often, in Arab divorces, one party blackmails the other, with women the usual victims. Society's view is sometimes the only thing people are concerned about.

A displeased source from the Marriage Fund once told me that publicising high divorce rates might suggest that divorce was "trending" and thus encourage others to split. But I fail to see how divorce can be something that comes into fashion. If you do not need one, numbers will not push you towards one. High rates are not a sign to stop people from divorcing; they are a sign that people have made poor marriage choices.

Lamia's huge step is not the end for her. She will still need to beg her former husband to sign the divorce papers. Her husband of 15 years said he would, but only once she gives up her rights and refunds him the money he spent on her dowry, as if it were some sort of business transaction gone wrong. The dowry was just Dh8,000, but the demand in itself is humiliating.

I am proud to have seen Lamia stand up for herself. Others, particularly those who rely heavily on their husbands, would find it hard to do what Lamia did. But one thing people - society - can do to help is to refrain from protesting when they hear of a divorce.

If parents believe a divorce is an end to their daughter's life, it is only because they view it as such. It amazes me that in this day and age, some still believe women are not capable of thinking, or going about their lives without the support of a husband.

 

osalem@thenational.ae