Posted on Aug 09, 2019
Editor's Note: This article is part of a summer series we are producing on "Marriage and Families - A Multifaceted Landscape." We will be covering Prophetic examples of marriages, blended families, questions to ask before marriage, courtship traditions in modern times, the post-divorce landscape, single parenting and other topics from a Muslim-centric perspective. Check into the blog throughout the summer to read our series.
By Nargis Rahman
Divorce can be a touchy topic in Muslim communities, where often times women who pursue divorce receive minimal or no support and sometimes become stigmatized by societal judgement. While more people are opting out of marriage due to emotional or physical abuse, cheating, multiple marriages, incompatibility or a variety of other reasons than previous generations, there is still not a clear path to seeking divorce in Muslim communities.
For Muslim women, figuring out how to live a post-divorce life can be very challenging. I spoke with a few divorced women, who shared tips on how they coped and rebuilt their lives after the divorce.
The one common factor across most Muslim communities is the use of faith as a tool to officiate marriages and navigate divorces, regardless if the individuals or couples are religious. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding conducted a four-year study, “Understanding Trends in American Muslim Divorce and Marriage: A Discussion Guide for Families and Communities,” to explore why Muslim couples are divorcing, how they go about it, how they feel about divorce and what are some of the misconceptions and repercussions.
The study found that overwhelmingly women are taking the brunt of divorces, and that women are seeking divorces more than previous generations, when marriage was a usually a lifetime commitment and divorces were largely frowned upon. It also found that divorce is almost always a last resort option among Muslim couples after years of contemplating and mediation efforts.
According to the American Psychological Association, about half of the marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, with higher rates of divorce for second marriages. Imam Mohamed Magid, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, said this also effects Muslim communities, with no discrimination to race, background or class or religiosity.
Divorces are happening for reasons ranging from interference from the in-laws and extended family, to cheating to incompatibility in marriage largely due to changing and evolving gender roles in marriages. Building a life after a divorce is a common step for anyone going through the process.
Consider Safina Mahmood’s story. Safina is a 37-year-old professional photographer with a masters in education. Her first marriage was arranged. She moved from Michigan to California to live with her husband and his family. She was married for two years (and had had no children) prior to moving back to her parents’ home to separate. “When I came back, I really did not have much support or friends. I stayed home and was very sheltered. I was very emotional, and depressed,” she said.
Divorces Made Unnecessarily Difficult
Safina, who was in her early 20s at the time, read Islamic books only to find out that her marriage was not truly a marriage. Due to not having the funds to afford an attorney, she went to her local law library to research and then ultimately file an application for divorce. Her proceedings took two years to finalize. Like many Muslim women, she was afraid of the cultural and social stigmas associated with women seeking divorce. She was pushed to reconcile and seek khul'a or kulu rather than the man granting her a divorce, which would allow her to keep her mahr.
In many instances imams or community members will not allow a woman to divorce without “permission” from the husband. In reality the process between legal and Islamic divorces can be confusing and conflicting. Yaqeen Institute recently published an infographic defining and explaining the three kinds of Islamic divorce, aimed to debunk myths about women and provide information about Islamic divorces. Court systems and imams, who typically assist in these manners, often push for reconciliation despite the circumstances.
In Michigan, for example, a woman has to file an application for divorce from the Imam Council, which is then reviewed by the council. It is then typically referred to a local imam from the community and in many cases rejected due to a push for reuniting. Sometimes women skip the route altogether and go for a legal divorce due to the hardships in obtaining a religious divorce, especially in cases of abuse or cheating. They may also forgo many of their rights in the process, including custody or financial support.
By and large, many Muslims - women and men alike - believe divorce is “the most hated permissible act,” stemming from the hadith:
It was narrated from 'Abdullah bin 'Umar that Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him said: ‘The most hated of permissible things to Allah is divorce.’
However, in the seerah we see that divorce, remarriage and marrying divorcees and widows was a regular part of Islamic culture during the time of the Prophet and was in fact encouraged.
The ISPU marriage and divorce study also aimed to define problems of marriages that dissolved and to help Muslim communities identify preventive measures to sustain marriages long-term through means of reflection, discussion and preparing ahead. Things like rigorous pre-counseling, compatibility and gender roles played important parts in the marriage.
Divorcees also expressed that reconciliation is not always an option, especially in instances of abuse and cheating. As Muslim communities it is necessary to examine what steps can be taken to ward off red flags ahead of time, how to reasonably work toward resolving issues within the marriage, and learn how to walk away and heal when all else fails.
Divorce is the Beginning of a New Norm
Lisa Vogl is the co-founder of Verona Collection. Earlier this year she publicly shared that she divorced her ex due to physical violence. Lisa said, “Prior to the divorce/separation I sought help from his family, therapists and local Imams. I look back and am in awe with how people handled it. I facing abuse and so many in the community treated it like we were fighting over trivial things. He was told to pray more and read the Quran. Serious actions need to be taken for serious circumstances.” (Read more about coping in situations of domestic violence, part 1 and surviving it in, part 2.)
Many women I spoke to said the separation and divorce proceedings was just the beginning of the hardships that come with divorce. Often times the process can take months, if not years, to sort through. For those who have children, figuring out how to communicate with the children’s father, what to ask for in terms of custody, child support and finances were other tough factors to discuss and agree upon. For all, healing from the emotions of divorce became the next challenge in moving forward in life.
Lisa said she had to adjust to the new norm. “You become accustomed to married life even if it was hell on earth like it was for me. You have to learn to emotionally pick yourself up and fill a role that I may not have thought you’d have to play. I have to now be both the mother and father, as I’m providing for my children while taking care of them.”
Lisa said she also has to financially provide for her children due to initiating the divorce. Other women I spoke to also said this tactic was used by their ex-husbands to keep them in the marriage or punish them for leaving. “My ex provided as long as I was still married to him, When I finally decided to divorce him after all the abuse he cut the money off. Everyone can scream ‘take him to court’ ... but the reality is that it takes months, and women who have nothing are stuck in the interim. So financial hardship is something so many women go through.”
While Safina did not have children in her first marriage, her divorce put a damper on her educational plans. She also struggled financially and did not have a car. However, with support from her parents, she went back to school year-round to catch up and later got a job as a teacher to get her life back on track.
From planning ahead for the oncoming hurdles to doing what’s best for each individual situation, here are some tips on forging a post-divorce life as Muslim women.
Preparing for Divorce and Building a Post-Divorce Life
Lack of finances is the number one reason people stay in marriages that are not working. I spoke to Rabab Alma, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who said learning about financial education helps people prepare on an exit plan for divorce and life after divorce. She said often times people are in an illusion that they will live the same quality of life after they get divorced in terms of the size of their house or other lifestyle elements. Financial planning can help alleviate the other stressors that come with becoming divorced.
1. Prepare ahead. If you have exhausted all avenues and mediation is not working, work toward exiting your current life and building the next. Consider hiring an attorney to learn your rights, get a job and save money, or in cases of domestic violence, create an exit plan. Lisa, who left due to domestic violence, packed her bags and took off to another state.
Farzana Noor is a family nurse practitioner/NICU RN. She learned about the Islamic divorce process through a local masjid. “It was very knowledgeable and also helped me find a sense of peace knowing I was doing the right thing for myself and my children.” She said she faced conflicting cultural views from family and friends to reconsider her decision due to having two kids. The other women I interviewed said they had to figure out the logistics on their own.
2. Have your divorce contract in writing. Rabab said there is a legal and Islamic divorce. When the divorce isn’t in writing, sometimes partners can claim that they are still married in other countries where the marriage may still be valid without proper documentation. If you have children, think ahead and comprehensively about what your kids will need long-term, like college tuition and other finances, said Rabab. Also, intervene and try to mediate sooner rather than later.
3. Prepare for emotional healing. Never make emotional decisions, said Rabab. Think long and hard before going forth if you need a divorce, but don’t change your mind due to feeling guilt, shame, disappointment, grief or wanting to be with a man who you thought would be the man of your dreams.
4. Create healthy positive space. One of the most common complaints Muslim women expressed was the lack of support within Muslim communities during the rise of conflict and after divorce was final. Rabab advises women to surround themselves with like-minded people and create their own happiness with people who may have gone through divorce and understand how to support them. A healthy network can be of Muslim and non-Muslims.
5. Do what’s best for you. Women said they had a harder time navigating getting a divorce due to people not taking them seriously, and communities usually taking the reconciliation route without taking into consideration the whole picture of the family home. Some of the Muslim women I interviewed shared that they did not receive spousal support financially to take care of the children.
Kids also face the brunt of divorces. Sound Vision reported children face adverse effects from divorce and can get pulled into the middle. Sometimes they believe the divorce happened because of them. “It is not uncommon for them to try to play one parent against the other because they need to feel in control and test rules and limits. However, they are likely to feel guilty and responsible for the separation and feel that they should try to restore the marriage.”
6. Don’t jump into another relationship. Divorce will make you feel lonely and can be isolating, especially in communities that are not supportive of divorces. However, in that post-divorce landscape, take some time to heal from old relationships before jumping into another one, advised Rabab. Rabab said it’s easy to be guilt-tripped into relationships that do not meet your standards when you are vulnerable.
“Never emotionally get involved with someone for whom you compromise your own values. Don’t lower your standards. It’s better to stay alone than repeating a miserable life. Stick to your values. Know self worth. Provide and create a support group of women. Women are capable of supporting each other emotionally,” she said.
7. Learn from your mistakes. Consider what made you get to the point of divorce? What can be done differently the second time around if you’re considering remarriage? The rate for second marriages ending in divorce are higher than first marriages, due to the complications and emotional baggage each party may bring to the table. Farzana said going back to a normal life was tough. “Discovering who I am again, finding things that make me happy, living for myself, all of these things were my biggest challenge.”
8. Put the kids first. Women who have children, especially minors, often have to communicate with their ex’s long past divorce. While this can be daunting, creating healthy boundaries and putting the kids’ best interests first is essential. Nadia Montalvo is a 31-year-old mom of three. She said, “Put everything to the side and put the kids first. What is best for them regardless of your feelings toward each other. It’s work but you have to separate the two. The kids don’t deserve to carry that baggage.”
Farzana said things like how to communicate with your ex are a work in progress. “We typically communicate via text if it’s something small such as pick up or drop off times [unless] it's something that requires in depth conversation or a phone call. I will say though it took us almost two years to get to this mutual civil communication process.”
Modern marriages and divorces are contingent upon understanding the purpose of marriage in Islam - to worship Allah and seek compatibility with a partner who will uplift, respect and uphold the purpose of marriage. Considering gender roles and discussing how to resolve issues as they come up are steps toward living fulfilled lives.
In the meantime, Muslim communities need to do a better job of educating people about healthy relationships, the hardships and conflicts of marriage, anger management and conflict resolution. Parents need to be more open-minded about allowing their children to marry people who match their personalities, upbringing and lifestyles, rather than place of origin, and encourage their children to make more informed decisions about their future.
In cases of abuse or unresolvable conflict, people need to do a better job at believing victims, rather than dismissing and rejecting their claims. We need to be more supportive of our loved ones’ decisions rather than telling women to stick it through. There is life after divorce. For some women, they said they felt like they began living after their divorces.
Safina, who is now remarried with three children, said her divorce helped her get closer to Allah. “I would like people to know that as a Muslim divorcee, Allah has made me a stronger woman. I have become more spiritual and have more faith in Islam and the teachings of marriage and relationships in Islam.”