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.

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This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism