Divorce a labyrinth for Arab wives
Middle East Times
March 27, 2007
"You want a divorce! Are you mad? That has never happened in our family
before!" are lines common to dozens of Egyptian movies. But in real life, Arab
divorce statistics paint a different picture.
Overall, getting a divorce for Arab women remains a daunting prospect, given all
its negative connotations: failure, helplessness, and shame. For some, a female
divorcee is a person to be regarded with suspicion by society, and even by
family members and friends.
However, the divorce rate in the Arab world has risen considerably. According to
the Saudi daily Asharq Al Awsat, an average of 60 divorces occur everyday
in the kingdom's capital, Riyadh.
And according to research conducted recently by Nora Al Shamlan, chairman of the
University Studies Center for Girls' research unit, the divorce rate in
Saudi Arabia has reached 60 percent. "The
rate rose from 25 percent to 60 percent during the last 20 years," confirms
Al Hayat's Fatima Al Aseemy.
Egypt, a divorce is granted every six
minutes with an average of 240 divorces per day according to a census released
by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
"The divorce rate has been rising because of the change in women's status. The
fact that women today have education and, more importantly, employment - which
leads to their financial independence - makes them more willing to accept
divorce rather than live an unhappy life," says Madiha Al Safty, a sociology
professor at the American University in Cairo. And "as society [moves] away from
the traditional model, a divorced woman is no longer as stigmatized as she used
to be," she adds.
As an ever-increasing number of women find themselves either divorced or
enduring a sad marriage, girlhood dreams of happy families and peaceful married
Layla Ahmed (real name withheld on request), a 27-year-old Saudi woman, is a
recent divorcee. From her perspective, "the high rate of divorce has to do with
choosing wrong partners and the fact that most youth are irresponsible," she
argues, adding that "divorce can also be the result of parents spoiling their
Layla has a five-year-old daughter, and was granted a divorce five years ago
after a year-and-a-half of marriage. Her sister is also a divorcee with a
17-year-old daughter who has not seen her father since she was six.
Middle East, whether or not it is her own
decision, a woman is often blamed for a divorce, given that divorce is always
thought to be the "fault" of one of the marital partners. The corollary to this
is that women are always expected to protect their family's stability and
harmony, even if they find themselves in a miserable marriage.
Commenting on this view, Safty says, "Of course, you cannot blame the woman
alone for divorce. [Either member] of the couple may be responsible."
Nonetheless, she points out: "It is common for an Egyptian woman to endure an
unhappy marriage for the children's sake in order to maintain the family
environment. However, there are cases where
the mother does not have the children's [well-being] as a priority and proceeds
with divorce for her own reasons."
In Arab culture, wives and mothers are self-sacrificing figures, always ready to
tolerate their husbands' mistakes, which can amount to infidelity at times.
"Mothers maintain homes while fathers destroy them," goes an Egyptian proverb.
In such a context, providing children with a stable home life becomes the sole
responsibility of the mother. And according to the same point of view, nurturing
the marriage is not a mutual responsibility.
Highlighting the role society assigns to a man in a marriage, Madiha Al Ajroush,
a Saudi psychologist, recites the Saudi proverb, "A man's only important
attribute is what is in his pocket."
"Why didn't you endure the marriage?" and "You are irresponsible!" are among the
barbs hurled at female divorcees, Layla tells the Middle East Times.
Nonetheless, for some of the region's women, a sad marriage is better than being
alone. Hence the Egyptian saying, "The company of any man is better than being
alone." Arab women are socialized to believe that an unattached female is a
worthless being. Having children also makes life easier for a woman in a
patriarchal society that holds motherhood in such high esteem.
While kindness is sometimes offered to divorced women, well-intentioned gestures
cannot undo the deeply-rooted societal beliefs regarding the role of a married
woman, and the culpability of female divorcees.
And even though spinsterhood is too frightening a prospect in the Middle East,
spinsters are generally luckier than divorcees, given that they are often
offered pity, rather than the pity mixed with suspicion divorcees are shown,
ultimately resulting in hostility.
Thus, many wives take the path of least resistance, choosing to endure their
marriages, however unhappy they may be.
According to Safty, "The fact remains that in most cases, divorced women are not
happy with their self-image," who adds that such self-condemnation is due to
women's "earlier traditional image."
However, a divorced woman's self-image, says Ajroush, ultimately depends on her
social class and the level of her education. When it comes to highly-educated
women, she argues, "divorcees usually clash with their families because they
tend to rebel against the limitations imposed on them," adding that "in some
cases, women are influenced by the negative messages they receive from people."
In addition, being single again and, supposedly, in search of a partner, a
female divorcee is often seen as a threat to her friends' marriages; wives see
her as a potential temptation for their husbands. Conversely, husbands might
regard her as a bad example for their wives.
Nevertheless, Safty says the status of divorced women in the Arab world has
changed considerably. "The traditional image for the [female] divorcee might be
one of suspicion, and, at times, of pity, but not so much today as in earlier
times, especially as divorce is on the rise," she tells the Middle East
Layla expresses a similar opinion: "In the past, divorce was regarded as a
strange thing, but it has become normal today."
Nevertheless, Layla makes it clear that traces of the traditional view still
exist. "Divorced women are treated differently. For example, they are expected
not to go out a lot ... in order to protect their reputation."
Ajroush agrees with both Safty and Layla. "The society's attitude toward
divorced women," she says, may have "changed slightly because of the high
divorce rate," but "people still have a predisposition to stigmatize female
"When a woman becomes a divorcee, her social status is downgraded, her personal
freedom is limited, and her rights as a mother are taken away from her in many
cases. Even young unmarried women have more freedom than divorced women,"
Meanwhile, post divorce, Arab women often have the added burden of how they are
to support themselves and their children.
"I can't provide for you and your four children," was the reaction of one
woman's father after hearing her decision to dissolve her marriage on
discovering her husband's infidelity.
In the words of Layla, "women who fear [returning] to their familial home are
obliged to endure the marriage against their wishes."
The reaction of families to the divorce of their female members complicates the
situation of women even further, given that marriage and divorce are seen as
familial, rather than individual, affairs. Fearing their loved ones' rejection,
some women abandon the idea of divorce altogether; others decide to rebel
against traditional norms and to bear the consequences of their choice.
Divorced women face many obstacles in moving on with their lives. For her part,
Layla believes that "divorced women are deeply wronged." She highlights the fact
that "a divorced man can easily [later] marry [a] virgin, [but] female
divorcees' ... only option is to marry either a [divorced] or an old man,"
adding that this is "the price divorced women ... pay for their first marriage."
In the words of Ajroush: "Society deals with divorced men and women very
differently, given that we live in a patriarchal society. Male divorcees have no
problems at all with remarrying. Yet, female divorcees fear that their kids
might be taken away from them and, even when they have the courage to look for
new partners, they have to accept lower criteria [in a new partner]."
Ismail Mohammed (real name withheld on request) is a 34-year-old Egyptian man. A
divorcee himself, Ismail agrees that divorce has become a common social
phenomenon. Even so, he expresses his unwillingness to remarry a divorced woman
because, in his words, "divorce is a harsh experience that affects women
psychologically more than men, making it difficult for them to resume their life
The 1979 film Wa la azaa lel sayyidat (Ladies Should Not Offer
Condolences), illustrated some of the problems faced by divorced Arab women. It
tells the story of Rawya, a woman who succeeds in divorcing her husband after he
fails to provide for her and their daughter. When she finds love again, Rawya's
ex-husband reappears on the scene, spreading vicious rumors about her, which
eventually lead her new lover to desert her. The movie, thus, harshly criticizes
society's condemnation of female divorcees, and the gossip that can destroy a
Predictably, initiating divorce proceedings has, for a long time, been far
easier for Arab men than Arab women. Until recently, in many Arab countries, the
only way for a woman to secure a divorce was either to convince her husband to
divorce her willingly or to file a case herself, having to prove in court that
she had compelling reasons for doing so - a process that might take her years.
An earlier 1975 Egyptian film, Orid Hallan (I Need a Solution), starring
Egyptian actress Faten Hamama, follows a woman named Fawzya as she seeks to
dissolve her marriage to an adulterous diplomat. Upon her husband's refusal to
grant her a divorce, she is left with no other choice but to take the matter to
court. But by using legal loopholes, her husband complicates the issue, making
it impossible for her to end the marriage.
The movie, which became the direct cause for the reform of certain articles in
Egyptian family law, denounced the legal injustice that placed suffocating
limitations on women's right to end a marriage.
Almost 24 years after the film's release, a new law or khul passed in
January 2000 in Egypt, generated instant controversy and fiery debate, enabling
women to get a divorce easily on condition they first renounced their marital
financial rights as former spouses.
For some, khul alleviated a genuine problem; for others, the new law
generated much fuss while being less-efficient than anticipated.
For her part, Safty argues that khul was meant to facilitate divorce
procedures that are lengthy and complicated. However, she seems to be
unsatisfied with the implementation of the law to date: "It is not as simple as
it sounds, and it also needs time and some procedures. But it has somehow helped
in some cases, although not in the way expected."
Ironically, in some Arab countries, dissolving marriages has proved to be less
of a problem than maintaining the original unions. In Saudi Arabia, forced
divorces are now the latest social phenomenon.
In 2006, the case of Fatima and Mansour - divorced in absentia at the request of
Fatima's brother on the basis of tribal incompatibility - shocked Saudi society.
According to Fatima's brother, the husband lied to them about his tribal origin,
which the brother regarded as a valid reason for separating the couple against
their wishes. Fatima is now serving an eight-month sentence in Dammam prison
with her one-year-old baby, while Mansour is in hiding with their three-year-old
A number of similar cases have also been brought to court. "At least 23 cases
have come to light in the past year of male relatives, often distant or unknown,
filing to divorce ... [a] happily married couple," wrote Suzan Zawazi for The
Saudi Gazette. As a result, a panel of legal and Islamic jurists was formed
by the ministry of justice to investigate the trend of forced divorce.
Women, says Ajroush, are the victims of a miscarriage of justice. "There are no
effective family laws and even those in existence are not applied properly."
Between the hammer of society and the anvil of law, divorced women or those
attempting to get a divorce in the Arab world, suffer - silently in most cases.
Whether or not their plight will be addressed remains ambiguous.
Perhaps, a totally new approach toward divorce is needed on both social and
legal levels so as to protect the right of millions of Arab women to a happy,
peaceful life. Merely reforming family law may not be enough to resolve the
problem, given that the law can only ultimately reflect, not mandate, a new
social attitude toward female divorcees.