In a generation, everything has changed for British Muslim women

My mother and I both married men from Pakistan. Both marriages ended in divorce, but their circumstances and our attitudes towards them could not have been more different: it is a sign of how much has changed.

Attitudes towards divorce are changing among British Muslim women. My mother’s generation regarded divorce as immoral, so sustaining a marriage for them was a lifelong project. However, for British educated Muslim women like me, divorce is an entitlement, even within Islamic law.

My mother and I married men from Pakistan. Although our marriages took place thirty years apart, they were only registered under Sharia, or Islamic religious law, in Pakistan. Both our marriages ended in divorce, yet the circumstances and our attitudes couldn’t have been more different.

My mother didn’t have any say in her divorce. She’d worked as a teacher in Pakistan before she was married off to my father in 1964, then a migrant textile mill worker in Bradford. After 15 years of marriage and three children, my father decided to return to Pakistan alone. A couple of years later, he sent mum the finalised Islamic divorce papers by post. The matter was taken completely out of her hands. She wasn’t even consulted. Mum felt so humiliated at the thought of becoming a divorced woman, that she couldn’t even bring herself to tell anyone what had happened for months. Mum says she understood that some marriages were not as successful as others, but the notion of her own marriage ending in divorce was inconceivable.

You’d hear about certain girls who couldn’t get along with their in-laws for whatever reason. People would say, “That girl isn’t worthy. She couldn’t conform.” There’d be a hint that the girl had some bad habits, or worse, that she was immoral. But that idea of things finishing altogether – well, that was unthinkable. You never heard about that.

For decades afterwards, mum maintained that a lifelong separation would have served her better than the dishonour of a divorce. It didn’t matter that she was better qualified and more articulate in English than her husband. While these skills no doubt enabled her to raise her children alone, she didn’t regard herself as empowered. She still viewed divorce as the ultimate curse, something the community would use to judge her character.

It’s not that my mother wasn’t aware of her religious rights. It’s just that in her mind, the moral stigma was greater. She knew that although Islam discourages divorce, the faith does acknowledge that situations may arise when marriage no longer fulfils its purpose. She also knew of several examples in Islamic texts and history which emphasise the woman’s right to divorce.

One oft-quoted Hadith, a teaching of the Prophet Muhammad, involves a girl who raised a complaint that her father had given her in marriage against her will. The Prophet told the girl that she was at liberty to choose or reject her husband. The girl chose to stay in the marriage, explaining that she had only wanted to know whether women had any rights in the matter.

My mother fell victim to the way in which Sharia law discriminates against gender, by making it much easier for a man to end a marriage. A woman can be divorced if her husband simply pronounces talaq (divorce) three times, although ideally he should not exercise this right without first seeking counsel or negotiating with his wife. However, the practice is frequently abused.

There are ways in which a woman may divorce her husband under Islamic law, although these are more drawn out than the simple pronouncement that men are decreed. At the time of marriage, a woman may ask her husband to delegate the power of pronouncing the divorce to her, thereby giving her the authority to dissolve the marriage contract. What’s more, a husband can no longer reclaim this power once he has transferred it to his wife. Since Islam regards marriage as a contractual relationship, a Muslim woman may also protect herself with the equivalent of a prenuptial agreement. She may seek a divorce if any of the agreed conditions are violated. In practice however, attaining such entitlements can be difficult. With many unions still arranged by parents, it can be difficult for the bride to make such demands at the time of marriage, particularly if she is yet to build a rapport with her husband.

The most common method for a woman to seek a divorce is to apply to a Sharia law body, a long and drawn out process, and not without expense. This is the route I took in Pakistan, where my marriage was registered, when I found myself several years into an unhappy marriage. Unlike my mother, divorce to me seemed the natural course of action. Although I was worried about the moral judgement I would draw as a divorcee, my freedom and happiness were ultimately more important. I was simply asserting my right.

I also realised that if my Pakistan-based husband opposed the divorce, it would be up to me to persuade the judge to end the marriage, and for that, I would have to navigate the minefield of the family courts in Rawalpindi. Instead, I set about persuading my husband to grant me a divorce through the Muslim family courts in Rawalpindi, where the marriage had been registered.

Attitudes aren’t just changing because British Muslim women are becoming more financially independent. Muslim women are also becoming more empowered and ensuring they educate themselves on their religious rights. Although divorce is deeply discouraged in Islam and seen as the last resort, it is nevertheless halal (permissible) for either the husband or the wife to ask for the marriage to be terminated.

Although it is still women that bear the brunt of the burden of shame when it comes to divorce, there is now recognition that the wife isn’t automatically at fault if a marriage breaks down. Moreover, with Muslim matrimonial websites now offering specific dating services for Muslim divorcees, there is also a growing appreciation that there is life and romance beyond divorce.

My mother didn’t have any say in her divorce - I did. Photograph: Getty Images.

Irna Qureshi is an anthropologist and writer on British Asian culture. Her short play, British Muslim and Divorced, will be performed as part of Slung Low’s 15 Minutes Live at Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill on Sunday, 19th May. She also blogs about being British, Muslim and female in Bradford.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle