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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.