Christian marriage is thought to be an eternal bond. However, this institution is buffeted with all kinds of demands in the modern world. The marriage vows declared together on your wedding day can either turn out to be a joy or a pain. What happens if you choose the wrong person or circumstances pin you up against a brick wall? The less liked road to divorce is always fraught with heartaches and regret. However, in some cultures, even the mention of the word ‘divorce’ is frowned upon and it is regarded as a taboo, even more so in a Christian marriage, which is originally meant to be a life-long bond.
I am not an advocate of divorce; however, it is essential to highlight the legal implications which Christian women in particular face and make the sad reality of a failed marriage even more miserable. The current Pakistani justice system puts Christian women in chains rather than offering them a reasonable solution to get out of a failed marriage. Last year, the federal government proposed reforms to the old British Christian Marriage Law Act of 1872 and the Divorce Act of 1869, which in the past have proved to be an endless albatross for Christian women, locked in dead-end marriages with few legal rights to protect themselves and regain their so-called ‘societal prestige’ in an already conservative and patriarchal society.
Under Section 10 of the Christian Divorce Act, 1869, a man can seek divorce on the grounds of adultery while it is a lot more difficult for a woman to seek divorce on the same ground. The wife must provide evidence of adultery coupled with other reasons like bigamy, incest, sodomy, rape or bestiality, cruelty or she must prove desertion for a period of two or more years. In a society where the man in the house is an ‘uncrowned prince’ while women already live in the shadows, it can sometimes be impossible for a woman to stand up to her husband. The current state of affairs provides a lot of room for Christian men to abuse the divorce law. Men often bring false accusations of adultery against their wives in order to get a divorce. This gnawing legal gap, which gives more power to men over women, needs to be addressed.
The Express Tribune recently reported that a judge at the Lahore High Court termed the 1869 Christian Divorce Act as “derogatory” to women. He was hearing a petition from a Christian man, Ameen Masih, seeking divorce. Mr Masih is demanding separation from his wife since he feels he cannot live with her anymore but for that, he would have to declare her an ‘adulterer’. However, he does not want to accuse his wife of something she did not do, hence the complexity of getting a divorce becomes even more torturous.
In addition to this, there is the negative cultural perception of divorce. In Pakistan, being a woman, Christian and divorced is a treble-tragedy. Women, who are already marginalised with few legal protections, are left in a precarious situation, which makes them soft targets for abuse, neglect and violence. A divorce for a Christian woman is regarded as an eternal stigma while men walk away with a clean track record both because of favourable laws, as well as because of the way Pakistani society functions. The right of self-determination is not given in the current Christian divorce system, in fact, it supports the culture of stigmatisation of women.
Both the Christian Marriage Law and the Divorce Act are legacies of colonial times and have haunted countless women, while affecting tens and thousands of Christian families across the country. The Pakistani legal system is still stuck with the old laws while the British legal system has evolved with the passage of time. In British law, the dissolution of marriage was once the prerogative of men, which was as an expensive route available to the rich and those belonging to the royal family. Later in 1857, the Matrimonial Clause Act allowed common men the right to divorce as well. With time, British law also started allowing women the right of divorce if they could prove that their husbands had been unfaithful or if they were guilty of rape or incest. In 1923, a private member’s bill was proposed, which made the divorce procedure easier and in 1937, a few more stipulations were added that allowed the right of divorce if drunkenness, insanity or desertion could be proved. The most recent major change was made in 1969 when in case of only one spouse wanting a divorce, couples would have to be living separately for some years before a divorce could be possible. Divorces in Britain normally result in maintenance allowances being provided to the less wealthy spouse – usually the woman.
The case of Ameen Masih in Lahore should set the tone for more legal rights to be provided to Christian women and men in Pakistan if they seek divorce. The current system demands that spouses defame each other. Further, the laws leave little or no chance for Christian women to liberate themselves from abusive marriages and leave them in endless misery. An amendment of the current Christian marriage and divorce laws in Pakistan is long overdue.
Worldwide, recently, the Church has taken many strides to keep up with the times. The recent induction of Reverend Libby Lane as the first woman bishop of the Church of England has been hailed as a massive step. The Church in Pakistan must stand up to protect the rights of women as well. Many Pakistani Christian women have withstood abuse both, at the hands of their families as well as the wider society. Now it is time that both the Church in Pakistan and the state provide justice and equality to Christian women so that they can lead their lives in a respectable manner both in the eyes of the law and society.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2015.