Divorce - A social stigma
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Divorce can be a deeply disorienting and traumatic experience of one’s life. Along with the death of a loved one, psychologists agree that divorce is one of the most harrowing phases one may have to face in life. Whether it is pronounced in a fit of rage, or is a result of long, overdrawn simmering of ruinous marital conflicts; whether it is unexpected or enacted judiciously following the meticulous steps and procedures laid down by Allah, a divorce shakes the core of human existence. Hence, any discourse on divorce must be approached and discussed with great sensitivity (to the situation and the parties involved) and an understanding of scrupulous permissibility of divorce only in extraordinary circumstances, thus ensuring that matters of divorce must never be taken lightly.
Consequently, scholars of Islam and Imams of masajid must exercise great perception, wisdom and insight in helping couples sort out their marital conflicts. They must employ all possible means, including negotiations, consultations, familial arbitration, individual and marital counseling and all kinds of psychological, emotional and social aid to make sure that couples do not resort to divorce as a means of resolving the marital disagreements. Divorce should be the last resort in a situation that is as bad as it can get.
However, reality dictates that there may be genuine cases, legitimate reasons, where divorce may be the only solution left, to prevent any further damage to the warring sides or the children involved. In keeping with Quranic instructions, usually much social and expert assistance is extended to couples trying to manage marital discords, however, having exhausted all means of reconciliation, if a couple indeed decides to divorce, unfortunately, there are no social coping mechanisms in place to help them deal with it effectively. Infact, the extent of scathing social and cultural stigmatization that a divorced woman may be subjected to just makes matters immensely difficult for her. Not surprisingly, the society is more tolerant of a divorced man.
Muslim societies generally exhibit a derogatory attitude of contempt and scorn towards divorced women. They are considered to have brought disgrace to the family. The immense negative social connotation exacerbates an already highly emotive and emotionally turbulent experience for her. “What will people think”? is usually the first thought that comes to her mind. The society understands it to be a great failure that somehow renders the divorced woman incapable of leading a successful life. The failure is then magnified and it becomes a kaleidoscope through which the woman is weighed and judged; all other accomplishments are denigrated before this one, single, over-whelming truth. The divorce becomes a definition for the divorced women.
And so, a woman divorcee can expect to elicit a wide spectrum of negative emotions and behaviours from people- ranging from pity, sympathy, shock and horror to contempt, intrigue and snoopiness- with complete disregard to respecting the woman’s right of maintaining privacy. Slandering, gossiping and judging the woman for her newly acquired “divorced” status is quite rampant in Muslim societies. This is the “collateral damage” of divorce, the social “price” that a woman has to pay for being divorced, which in actuality has no precedents in Islamic history, fiqh or laws.
Divorce is undeniably one of the most condemnable acts in Islam. In a famous hadith, narration of which is slightly weak, but scholars agree that the meaning is sound, Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu’alayhi wasallam) is reported to have said:
" أَبْغَضُ الْحَلاَلِ إِلَى اللَّهِ الطَّلاَق´ "
‘The most detestable of all permissible deeds to Allah is divorce.’
This implies that Allah hates divorce, but He does not forbid it to His slaves, for He knows that sometimes, in dire situations, the complexity of human interactions may actually make it more destructive for them to carry on a marital relationship. The Holy Quran lays down exacting and meticulous instructions and procedures that any couple trying to sort out marital conflicts must follow conscientiously, to avoid invoking the wrath of Allah. Allah says in Surah Nisa (4:35)
“And if you fear a breach between spouses, appoint one arbiter from the relatives of the husband and one from the relatives of the wife. If the two sides sincerely desire to set things right, Allah will create a way' of reconciliation between them, for surely Allah knows everything and is aware of everything”
In this verse, a plan has been put forward for settling disputes between husband and wife within the family. These, along with multiple other sections of the Quran, demonstrate that the provision for divorce has been made only as an unavoidable necessity; otherwise Allah does not approve that the marriage relationship that has been established between a man and a woman as a “sacred covenant” should ever break. However, in case a divorce is inevitable, Allah says in Surah Al-Talaq (65:2):
“Then when they have reached the end of their (waiting) periods either retain them (in wedlock) in a fair manner or part with them in a fair manner”
The Quran clearly states that women must be retained (in marriage) with honour and dignity and if a couple decides to part ways, that too should be done amicably and gracefully.
The above verses delineate the sensitivity of matters pertaining to divorce. Both in the context of marriage and divorce, the Quran recommends an attitude of compassion and kindness towards women. Admittedly, a careful study of the times and Seerah of Prophet Muhammad reveals that, while divorce was indeed considered unequivocally reprehensible, there was no social and cultural stigma attached to it. Many of the Sahaba, during the life of Prophet Muhammad, reportedly went through divorces for legitimate reasons, and they were neither chastised for it nor publicly blamed and reprimanded for it.
The society is often quick in judging divorcees as being “good” or “bad”. In truth, they are just as human as those who are happily married. A case in point is that of Zaid ibn Harithah and Zainab bint Jahash. Both were not just closely related to the Prophet, their marriage took place as a result of his request. The Prophet has many ahadiths praising their pious statuses; they were, afterall, the Companions of one of the highest ranks. But they never got along well and their marriage was plagued with issues of varying nature, eventually leading to a divorce. It was not an issue of good or bad, rather, sometimes two good people may not get along well for other legitimate reasons. And the society should not punish them for that.
Accordingly, many Islamic scholars, in an attempt to save Muslim women divorcees from social indignation and contempt, usually reiterate the fact that, besides Hazrat Ayesha (R.A), all of the wives of Prophet Muhammad were either divorced or widowed. Sadly, this hardly mitigates the negative social attitudes that people exhibit towards women divorcees.
In Pakistan many researches have been conducted which affirm that divorced women face severe social stigma leading to many emotional, health and financial problems. Divorce can result in social isolation as readjustment to a new role may prove difficult. Financial constraints often follow divorce, particularly for women who have to raise children with little or no social support system. Divorced women experience more depression, loneliness and social interaction anxiety as compare to married women.
This shows that post-divorce is a sensitive time for a woman, when she is trying to come to terms with her new reality. It is a time when the woman may need to focus all her strength and her capabilities to deal with the huge loss and change in her life and channelize it in a positive manner. She may need rest and respite from what may have been an emotionally tumultuous marriage; she may need time to grieve the loss. She may need privacy to sort out her feelings and take practical steps to put her life back in order. More importantly, in case she’s a mother and engaged in emotionally draining custody cases or already has children in her guardianship, she is required to attend to the needs of her children in the best possible way. Regretfully, the acute social stigma just adds to the existing chaos in her life and makes her journey towards healing, a painstakingly difficult road for her.
Muslims scholars are vague as to why the social stigma has developed over the centuries in Muslims societies and has snowballed to an extent where most Muslim women prefer living in extremely abusive, torturous marriages than run the risk of being labeled or carrying the ignoble title of “divorcee”. She is never given the benefit of the doubt; rather, all carefully designed (apparently) religious and social narratives hold her more responsible for the breakup of “her home” and destroying “his life”. She is never accorded the luxury of “husn-az-zan” or the principle of positive possibility; that she may genuinely have been wronged or she may have been at the receiving end of oppression and/or verbal, mental, physical abuse. She is never trusted to have possibly done all she could humanly do to save her marriage. Also, women divorcees find it incredibly hard to find suitable marriage proposals. Muslim men generally abhor the idea of marrying divorced woman because of the stereotyped image of divorced women.
Many changes can be brought about at the individual, social and collective levels to break the stigma attached to divorced women. Primarily, the judgmental and condemnatory mindsets and social attitudes need to be changed. Change agents, like the Imams of masajid, Muslim scholars, psychological counselors, therapists, teachers and other influential stake holders in Muslim societies can play a positive role to change people’s perceptions by initiating meaningful dialogue and creating an environment of empathy towards them. Educators, especially those concerned with family relations and family resource management can counsel women and their families to improve their lives in a positive way. The change must begin within to create a society that is more integrative and accommodative towards divorced women. Creating social acceptability is an essential step towards more social integration and self-reliance.
Secondly, government and its related institutions should provide them with security and legal assistance if required and take responsibility of ensuring complete well-being of the women in all ways possible. Concrete laws and social coping mechanisms should be in place to provide customized and specialized assistance of any kind to help them sustain the change in their lives. Education and vocational training programs must be made available for lower income and lesser educated, single working women. Integrative and easily attainable short professional certification programs must be introduced in Government colleges and universities for the educated women who, due to their marital responsibilities, may have missed out on advancements on the professional fronts. This should help them find better job placements in society to become financially independent. Intervention programs like psychological counseling and various therapies can be introduced to educate women and their families about better mental and emotional health, stress management and other social anxiety-related issues following divorces.
The aim should be to create a society that is compassionate, integrative and assimilative towards divorced women and that has all legal, social, financial mechanisms in place to help them become healthy, productive and constructive individuals, contributing to the society with the best of their capabilities.