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Divorce a labyrinth for Arab wives

Dina Abdel Mageed
Middle East Times
March 27, 2007


RIYADH -- "You want a divorce! Are you mad? That has never happened in our family before!" are lines common to dozens of Egyptian movies. But in real life, Arab divorce statistics paint a different picture.

Overall, getting a divorce for Arab women remains a daunting prospect, given all its negative connotations: failure, helplessness, and shame. For some, a female divorcee is a person to be regarded with suspicion by society, and even by family members and friends.

However, the divorce rate in the Arab world has risen considerably. According to the Saudi daily Asharq Al Awsat, an average of 60 divorces occur everyday in the kingdom's capital, Riyadh.

And according to research conducted recently by Nora Al Shamlan, chairman of the University Studies Center for Girls' research unit, the divorce rate in Saudi Arabia has reached 60 percent. "The rate rose from 25 percent to 60 percent during the last 20 years," confirms Al Hayat's Fatima Al Aseemy.

In Egypt, a divorce is granted every six minutes with an average of 240 divorces per day according to a census released by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.

"The divorce rate has been rising because of the change in women's status. The fact that women today have education and, more importantly, employment - which leads to their financial independence - makes them more willing to accept divorce rather than live an unhappy life," says Madiha Al Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. And "as society [moves] away from the traditional model, a divorced woman is no longer as stigmatized as she used to be," she adds.

As an ever-increasing number of women find themselves either divorced or enduring a sad marriage, girlhood dreams of happy families and peaceful married lives evaporate.

Layla Ahmed (real name withheld on request), a 27-year-old Saudi woman, is a recent divorcee. From her perspective, "the high rate of divorce has to do with choosing wrong partners and the fact that most youth are irresponsible," she argues, adding that "divorce can also be the result of parents spoiling their kids."

Layla has a five-year-old daughter, and was granted a divorce five years ago after a year-and-a-half of marriage. Her sister is also a divorcee with a 17-year-old daughter who has not seen her father since she was six.

In the Middle East, whether or not it is her own decision, a woman is often blamed for a divorce, given that divorce is always thought to be the "fault" of one of the marital partners. The corollary to this is that women are always expected to protect their family's stability and harmony, even if they find themselves in a miserable marriage.

Commenting on this view, Safty says, "Of course, you cannot blame the woman alone for divorce. [Either member] of the couple may be responsible."

Nonetheless, she points out: "It is common for an Egyptian woman to endure an unhappy marriage for the children's sake in order to maintain the family environment. However, there are cases where the mother does not have the children's [well-being] as a priority and proceeds with divorce for her own reasons."

In Arab culture, wives and mothers are self-sacrificing figures, always ready to tolerate their husbands' mistakes, which can amount to infidelity at times. "Mothers maintain homes while fathers destroy them," goes an Egyptian proverb.

In such a context, providing children with a stable home life becomes the sole responsibility of the mother. And according to the same point of view, nurturing the marriage is not a mutual responsibility.

Highlighting the role society assigns to a man in a marriage, Madiha Al Ajroush, a Saudi psychologist, recites the Saudi proverb, "A man's only important attribute is what is in his pocket."

"Why didn't you endure the marriage?" and "You are irresponsible!" are among the barbs hurled at female divorcees, Layla tells the Middle East Times.

Nonetheless, for some of the region's women, a sad marriage is better than being alone. Hence the Egyptian saying, "The company of any man is better than being alone." Arab women are socialized to believe that an unattached female is a worthless being. Having children also makes life easier for a woman in a patriarchal society that holds motherhood in such high esteem.

While kindness is sometimes offered to divorced women, well-intentioned gestures cannot undo the deeply-rooted societal beliefs regarding the role of a married woman, and the culpability of female divorcees.

And even though spinsterhood is too frightening a prospect in the Middle East, spinsters are generally luckier than divorcees, given that they are often offered pity, rather than the pity mixed with suspicion divorcees are shown, ultimately resulting in hostility.

Thus, many wives take the path of least resistance, choosing to endure their marriages, however unhappy they may be.

According to Safty, "The fact remains that in most cases, divorced women are not happy with their self-image," who adds that such self-condemnation is due to women's "earlier traditional image."

However, a divorced woman's self-image, says Ajroush, ultimately depends on her social class and the level of her education. When it comes to highly-educated women, she argues, "divorcees usually clash with their families because they tend to rebel against the limitations imposed on them," adding that "in some cases, women are influenced by the negative messages they receive from people."

In addition, being single again and, supposedly, in search of a partner, a female divorcee is often seen as a threat to her friends' marriages; wives see her as a potential temptation for their husbands. Conversely, husbands might regard her as a bad example for their wives.

Nevertheless, Safty says the status of divorced women in the Arab world has changed considerably. "The traditional image for the [female] divorcee might be one of suspicion, and, at times, of pity, but not so much today as in earlier times, especially as divorce is on the rise," she tells the Middle East Times.

Layla expresses a similar opinion: "In the past, divorce was regarded as a strange thing, but it has become normal today."

Nevertheless, Layla makes it clear that traces of the traditional view still exist. "Divorced women are treated differently. For example, they are expected not to go out a lot ... in order to protect their reputation."

Ajroush agrees with both Safty and Layla. "The society's attitude toward divorced women," she says, may have "changed slightly because of the high divorce rate," but "people still have a predisposition to stigmatize female divorcees."

"When a woman becomes a divorcee, her social status is downgraded, her personal freedom is limited, and her rights as a mother are taken away from her in many cases. Even young unmarried women have more freedom than divorced women," Ajroush explains.

Meanwhile, post divorce, Arab women often have the added burden of how they are to support themselves and their children.

"I can't provide for you and your four children," was the reaction of one woman's father after hearing her decision to dissolve her marriage on discovering her husband's infidelity.

In the words of Layla, "women who fear [returning] to their familial home are obliged to endure the marriage against their wishes."

The reaction of families to the divorce of their female members complicates the situation of women even further, given that marriage and divorce are seen as familial, rather than individual, affairs. Fearing their loved ones' rejection, some women abandon the idea of divorce altogether; others decide to rebel against traditional norms and to bear the consequences of their choice.

Divorced women face many obstacles in moving on with their lives. For her part, Layla believes that "divorced women are deeply wronged." She highlights the fact that "a divorced man can easily [later] marry [a] virgin, [but] female divorcees' ... only option is to marry either a [divorced] or an old man," adding that this is "the price divorced women ... pay for their first marriage."

In the words of Ajroush: "Society deals with divorced men and women very differently, given that we live in a patriarchal society. Male divorcees have no problems at all with remarrying. Yet, female divorcees fear that their kids might be taken away from them and, even when they have the courage to look for new partners, they have to accept lower criteria [in a new partner]."

Ismail Mohammed (real name withheld on request) is a 34-year-old Egyptian man. A divorcee himself, Ismail agrees that divorce has become a common social phenomenon. Even so, he expresses his unwillingness to remarry a divorced woman because, in his words, "divorce is a harsh experience that affects women psychologically more than men, making it difficult for them to resume their life normally."

The 1979 film Wa la azaa lel sayyidat (Ladies Should Not Offer Condolences), illustrated some of the problems faced by divorced Arab women. It tells the story of Rawya, a woman who succeeds in divorcing her husband after he fails to provide for her and their daughter. When she finds love again, Rawya's ex-husband reappears on the scene, spreading vicious rumors about her, which eventually lead her new lover to desert her. The movie, thus, harshly criticizes society's condemnation of female divorcees, and the gossip that can destroy a woman's life.

Predictably, initiating divorce proceedings has, for a long time, been far easier for Arab men than Arab women. Until recently, in many Arab countries, the only way for a woman to secure a divorce was either to convince her husband to divorce her willingly or to file a case herself, having to prove in court that she had compelling reasons for doing so - a process that might take her years.

An earlier 1975 Egyptian film, Orid Hallan (I Need a Solution), starring Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, follows a woman named Fawzya as she seeks to dissolve her marriage to an adulterous diplomat. Upon her husband's refusal to grant her a divorce, she is left with no other choice but to take the matter to court. But by using legal loopholes, her husband complicates the issue, making it impossible for her to end the marriage.

The movie, which became the direct cause for the reform of certain articles in Egyptian family law, denounced the legal injustice that placed suffocating limitations on women's right to end a marriage.

Almost 24 years after the film's release, a new law or khul passed in January 2000 in Egypt, generated instant controversy and fiery debate, enabling women to get a divorce easily on condition they first renounced their marital financial rights as former spouses.

For some, khul alleviated a genuine problem; for others, the new law generated much fuss while being less-efficient than anticipated.

For her part, Safty argues that khul was meant to facilitate divorce procedures that are lengthy and complicated. However, she seems to be unsatisfied with the implementation of the law to date: "It is not as simple as it sounds, and it also needs time and some procedures. But it has somehow helped in some cases, although not in the way expected."

Ironically, in some Arab countries, dissolving marriages has proved to be less of a problem than maintaining the original unions. In Saudi Arabia, forced divorces are now the latest social phenomenon.

In 2006, the case of Fatima and Mansour - divorced in absentia at the request of Fatima's brother on the basis of tribal incompatibility - shocked Saudi society. According to Fatima's brother, the husband lied to them about his tribal origin, which the brother regarded as a valid reason for separating the couple against their wishes. Fatima is now serving an eight-month sentence in Dammam prison with her one-year-old baby, while Mansour is in hiding with their three-year-old daughter.

A number of similar cases have also been brought to court. "At least 23 cases have come to light in the past year of male relatives, often distant or unknown, filing to divorce ... [a] happily married couple," wrote Suzan Zawazi for The Saudi Gazette. As a result, a panel of legal and Islamic jurists was formed by the ministry of justice to investigate the trend of forced divorce.

Women, says Ajroush, are the victims of a miscarriage of justice. "There are no effective family laws and even those in existence are not applied properly."

Between the hammer of society and the anvil of law, divorced women or those attempting to get a divorce in the Arab world, suffer - silently in most cases. Whether or not their plight will be addressed remains ambiguous.

Perhaps, a totally new approach toward divorce is needed on both social and legal levels so as to protect the right of millions of Arab women to a happy, peaceful life. Merely reforming family law may not be enough to resolve the problem, given that the law can only ultimately reflect, not mandate, a new social attitude toward female divorcees.



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