Divorce Doesn’t Make Muslim Women Inferior

I don’t think many of my friends realize how tough it is for a Pakistani kid to have divorced parents. For those of you who are Pakistani themselves, take a good, hard look at how your parents react to divorce and you might understand what I mean. The fact is that my divorced parents and I are a minority, and very much alone. I have many friends who aren’t desi (from the subcontinent) or Muslim, with parents who just couldn’t stick it out, but even they cannot fully empathize. Their families are no longer bitter. Their mothers socialize with ease. No one thinks of them any differently because of a decision their parents made.

I have only one Muslim desi friend with divorced parents; he and I have an odd bond of sorts over it. Every other person I know from a subcontinental or Muslim background has parents who either get along out of love, get along out of necessity, or simply prefer quarreling the rest of their lives away instead of committing the social suicide that is divorce in our culture. And I don’t blame them.

I keep saying “Muslim or desi” because it’s hard for me to classify this issue as either or. The taboo of divorce is something that exists in Pakistani society due to cultural influences, not the religion of Islam. In fact, Islam is not the true reason any culture looks down on divorce. The sentiment in Arab countries comes from the same place it does in Eastern Asian countries or in very conservative European cultures — from patriarchal values rooted in attitudes that existed long before the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Prophet’s own attitude towards the issue of divorce becomes apparent when looking at his life, and his marriage to his fifth wife, Zaynab bint Jahsh. Zaynab was not only a divorcee, her ex-husband was the Prophet’s adopted son, Zayd ibn Harithah. This not only demonstrates the fact that the Prophet (PBUH) did not see himself above marrying someone who had been previously married, but also that he and his family were mature and capable enough to handle divorce and remarriage without bitterness or resentment. This is something that, I’m sad to say, many of his followers to this day cannot seem to do. Islam has very specific procedures for divorce, and both husband and wife can demand one. While reconciliation is strongly encouraged, and divorce designated as a last resort, there is nothing in the teachings of the Qur’an or Hadith to suggest that those who choose to divorce are in any way morally inferior or worthy of condemnation.

It all comes down to the fact that in many patriarchal cultures, a woman’s value is based solely on her virginity. From what I’ve seen, people often overlook the fact that a woman is educated or kind or honest, and focus completely on whether or not she’s been with a man before. Nevermind the fact that a married woman has the right to be intimate with her husband. Nevermind the fact that, of the Prophet’s eleven wives, only one was previously unmarried. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) did not consider himself above marrying a divorcee, and yet his followers believe themselves and their sons to be above such “degradation.”

Believe it or not, my parents’s divorce has caused others to suggest I’m not suitable for marriage. This hasn’t affected my hopes for landing Mr. Perfect, but it has always struck me as amusingly unfair. The extent to which prejudice affects the standing of divorced women, not only in general society but in their own families, is astounding. A recent article in The Express Tribune reported that there has been a rise in women seeking divorces in Pakistan due to the fact that they’re gaining financial independence and awareness of their rights. Women are finally starting to escape abusive relationships. Unfortunately, the numbers are still small, due to the social stigma surrounding divorce, and the very real threat to their lives. Women have been known to be killed while pursuing divorce, either by their estranged husbands, their husband’s families, or even their own families. Murdering a woman for her decision to divorce doesn’t strike me as Islamic. I know, as Muslims, it is easy to dismiss these cases as the “extreme,” but these incidents stem from an attitude that is all too prevalent.

Islam teaches us to respect women and to give them their rights, to love daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives. Marriage in Islam is an institution of love and respect, not obligation and abuse. We need to take a good, hard look at how we perceive those who pursue truly Islamic marriages — and how we treat those who cannot find their true match on the first or second try — and realize that strong women in strong marriages will only result in a strong ummah.