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.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide