Pakistani women turn to once-taboo divorce to escape abuse

Published: January 9, 2013
While women divorcing their husbands are widespread in the West, it is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan. DESIGN: URSHELA RIAZ & ZAINAB LOTIA

While women divorcing their husbands are widespread in the West, it is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan. DESIGN: URSHELA RIAZ & ZAINAB LOTIA

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani women are slowly turning to divorce to escape abusive and loveless marriages, once taboo and still a dangerous option in this strict Muslim nation even as more women become empowered by rising employment and awareness of their rights.

But the number of women with the courage to seek divorce remains small in the face of Pakistan’s powerful religious right and growing Islamic conservatism, and in a male-dominated nation where few champion women’s rights.

Women are often killed while pursuing divorces, with some shot on the way home from court or in front of their lawyers.

In the capital Islamabad, home to 1.7 million people, 557 couples divorced in 2011, up from 208 in 2002, the Islamabad Arbitration Council said. The Pakistani government does not track a national divorce rate.

“If you are earning, the only thing you need from the guy is love and affection. If the guy is not even providing that, then you leave him,” said 26-year-old divorcee Rabia, a reporter who left a loveless arranged marriage to a cheating husband.

Despite their small numbers, Rabia and other women like her are seen as a rising threat from Pakistan’s conservative forces.

“The women have been given so-called freedom and liberty, which causes danger to themselves,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters.

There were at least 1,636 “honour killings” last year, said Pakistani rights group The Aurat Foundation. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that “dishonours” her family is sufficient to trigger an attack.

Pashtun singer Ghazala Javed became a statistic in June. A famous beauty, she married after fleeing Taliban threats. Then she discovered her new husband already had a wife. When she asked for a divorce, she and her father were shot dead.

Financial empowerment

While women divorcing their husbands are widespread in the West, growing markedly in the 20th century in many developed nations, it is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan.

And while a divorce case in the Muslim family courts must be resolved within six months, civil divorce cases can drag on for years, making it even harder for tens of thousands of women from religious minorities to get a divorce.

In the commercial hub Karachi, lawyer Zeeshan Sharif said he receives several divorce enquiries a week but virtually none a decade ago.

Women seeking a divorce usually come from the upper and middle classes, he said. Lawyers’ fees are at least $300, a year’s wage for many of Pakistan’s 180 million citizens. For poor housewives, hiring a lawyer is impossible.

Most Pakistanis think the higher divorce rate is linked to women’s growing financial independence, a 2010 poll by The Gilani Foundation/Gallup Pakistan found.

The number of women with jobs grew from 5.69 million to 12.11 million over the past decade, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics said.

“Women are also making money now and they think if they have empowerment, they do not need to sacrifice as much,” said Musfira Jamal, a senior member of the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami. “God does not like divorce … (but) God has not given any right to any man to beat his wife or torture his family.”

In 2012, clerics and a religious party demanded a review of a bill to outlaw domestic violence, saying it risked undermining “family values”.

Western culture, not abuse, is why women seek divorces, said Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.

Yet domestic violence was one of the most common reasons for divorce, said lawyer Aliya Malik. Around 90 per cent of Pakistani women experienced domestic violence at least once, a 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found.

Divorce stigma

If deciding to ask for a divorce is painful, getting it granted is agonising. Muslim women in the subcontinent didn’t get the legal right to ask for a divorce until the mid-1930s.

Even then, a bride had to opt in by checking a box on their marriage certificate. A law passed in 1961 finally let women seek divorce through civil courts if they could show their spouses were at fault, but cases can take years.

Human rights lawyer Hina Jilani says fear remains one of the strongest barriers. One of Jilani’s clients seeking a divorce was shot dead in front of her by the young woman’s mother.

The public stigma, risk of violence and trauma of shepherding a case through Pakistan’s tangled justice system is so overwhelming most women never try.

Sadia Jabbar, a bubbly, dimpled 29-year-old TV executive, struggled with feelings of guilt and failure after she left her cheating husband.

“It was a really bad feeling, as if I had failed in the biggest decision of my life,” she said.

The stigma of divorce also means women find it hard to remarry, and many feel it’s easier to stay in an unhappy marriage than be alone. The difficulties multiply when children are involved.

Court-ordered child support payments to divorced mothers in Pakistan are rare and enforcement even rarer.

Fatima, a 31-year-old mother of two living in the eastern city of Lahore, endured seven years of severe beatings before divorcing her husband.

“He used to slap me, push me, pull my hair. After I had injured my backbone very badly, he slapped me while I was pregnant,” she said. Reuters is withholding her real name for her protection.

She got her divorce but her ex-husband refused to pay child support. Unable to get a decent job, she remarried him so he would pay their children’s school fees. Now she sleeps behind a locked door.

“He will not give maintenance if I am not living in the house,” she said. “I don’t want to leave (my children) alone here. They are at a very tender age. If I could have supported them, I would have left long ago.”

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Truth detector
    Jan 9, 2013 - 12:45PM

    If the rate of divorce has almost doubled since 2002 then the population of Islamabad has also.
    Islamic Conservatism doesn’t stop one from giving “divorce” infact it’s cultural Taboo, since living with Hindu’s has made it part of Pakistani culture also. where as in Arabs “divorce” if not consiered such a Taboo.

    Last but not the least women are not always the victims. Women are also rightly blamed as a reason for divorce specially in upper middle classes.


  • Faraz
    Jan 9, 2013 - 2:23PM

    hmmm Quoting reports of Reuter?


  • zubair
    Jan 9, 2013 - 2:37PM

    I am a man but i realy feel that most of the times women resort to divorce because of unfair, cheating and dis-honest men. Further, Marriage is a lottery, you always expect to win it but very few actually WIN it.


  • Born Political
    Jan 9, 2013 - 3:58PM

    Why are men receiving all criticism? Don’t women cheat their husbands? Or show arrogance towards their in-laws? Infact, men or women, intolerance has increased in our society and it will now reflect in anything. I personally know unhappy couples who are now proud of their successful children.


  • uZee
    Jan 9, 2013 - 5:03PM

    Just to add to your record here, 90% of divorced are initiated by women while rest 10% are men who are cheaters, we agree. But in divorce cases men are not alone to blame for


  • Mika
    Jan 9, 2013 - 5:41PM

    Yet the solution was given 1400 years ago.


  • Shaami Lahori
    Jan 9, 2013 - 6:16PM

    Now filmi and Drama scenes have to be changed in Pakistan. Now a Girl will say in Dramas ” Main Tumhain Talaaq Deti Hoon Tallaq Tallaq Tallaq” and then poor man will have to say ” Nahiiiiiiiiiiiiiin”


  • lionheart
    Jan 9, 2013 - 7:14PM


    Marraige is never a lottery. And no one should expect it to win. No one has an ideal married life but that doesn’t mean you throw your hand in the air and give up. Its a relation that needs to be nurtured and worked at to make it work. Its a bond between a man and a woman to be each others partners for the rest of their lives.


  • Zalim singh
    Jan 9, 2013 - 7:33PM

    @ Mika



  • BachelorBoy
    Jan 9, 2013 - 9:51PM

    Infact abdication is’nt solution of any problem. Women are made 10 times higher in making compromises with life in comparation of men, therefore this is an absolute need to make compromises instead of taking any step for self-sake only…
    Nevertheless, the increase of resources and self-relience of female is major cause of this trauma called divorce, still lack of cognition and longsightedness is another truth beyond such malfunctions OR destruction of marriages…
    What I think is becoming self-sufficient of a woman increases her self-esteem into extreme ego and inspite of which she happens to neglect her kids and whole family, by proclaiming some mistakes of her husband…


  • Mika
    Jan 10, 2013 - 12:43PM

    @Zalim singh:
    Show Shariah laws on divorce to any divorce lawyer in US and get their opinion.


  • sattar rind
    Jan 10, 2013 - 3:10PM

    Definitely society needs a time to be changed. Change not take place in an over night. We are very conservative in our culture and especially toward women folk. It has to get time to change… very long time


  • Foshan
    Jan 11, 2013 - 9:31PM

    @Reuters… Critics on Islam are usual from western media n why they are trying to change our society, thank God we are Muslims n our culture n traditions are far better then Westerns…

    Let’s talk about Europe, London, US, Russian etc countries where 95% women are divorced n that too plenty times. Girls at age 13 are pregnant i.e. at school, a child is born without marriage n no where about of his/her father or the father is discovered by doctors through cologne i.e. from three to seven men. Incest is a part of society even legal, men marrying men n many more worst things that I can not even write. This all is not allowed in Christianity (the religion) but invented n adapted by society. We being Muslim do not insult others religion name n we always criticize the act.

    Islam has given respect, protection n all legal rights to a women, also legal rights to take KHULA/divorce. That is a Court proceeding n the Judges always try their best to patch up amicably.

    Marriage is a legal relation where both have to learn, to control, to ignore, to be patient, to respect n to smile etc. Our lives r in our own hands, make it or destroy it. Divorce is not a solution. Child birth brings the love in family. Love family n do not let others interfere.


  • Feb 23, 2013 - 10:06AM

    *Divorce rate has risen in this society because of many social evils. Male chauvinism is the main cause of divorce combined with hegemony on the part of in-laws only to develop a synergy. Daughters-in-law are mostly treated in an adverse manner, and are not given their due respect & status. Cradle education, social training, mutual respect, counselling etc are the factors that could help maintain cordial husband-wife relationship. In Pakistan no social menace is being treated to control it. Our job is to discuss problems, and not to find solutions thereto.*


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