A Woman's Perspective On Divorce In The Arab World

More and more people in Muslim-majority countries are opting out of their marriages. And often it's the woman who decides to end things.

Women in Abu Dhabi
Women in Abu Dhabi
Dunja Ramadan

ABU DHABI — Farah wears her long black hair down and uncovered. Her nails are painted red. And she loves base jumping. She's also a divorcee — as of nine years ago. Her daughter was only 11 months old at the time. Farah herself was just 19. The marriage had lasted two years.

Farah exudes self-confidence and says she's open for a new relationship. She's the opposite of the clichéd image many still have of an Arab woman, of someone forced into marriage, oppressed and wearing a full hijab. Certainly there are still arranged marriages (not to be confused with forced marriages) in the Arab world. But far more often than in the past — and far more quickly — unhappy spouses in this part of the world now separate and divorce.

The divorce rate in Abu Dhabi, Farah's hometown, is the highest in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). When Farah got divorced in 2008, four out of every 10 marriages were dissolved (the same rate as in Germany). And in populous Egypt, approximately 40% of all marriages end within the first five years. A half-century ago, the rate was just 4%. The change has not gone unnoticed in politics, as evidenced by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's recent call for an increase of bureaucratic obstacles to divorce.

At this point, though, it's unlikely rules changes will have much effect on the trend, which is the product of overall shifts in society. Rana, a 27-year-old woman from Riyadh, says pressure on divorced women is finally decreasing. Even in her native Saudi Arabia, an ultra conservative country, nearly 30% of all marriages end in divorce.

A family affair

Farah's marriage was not a love match but something arranged for her by her parents. For such marriages, relatives function as brokers, checking and weighing the prospective husband's economic, psychological and physical attributes. Once the family approves, the prospective husband and wife then meet in a "salon," a seldom used, kitschy but splendid room, for a chance to get to know each other. Except they're not supposed to get too well acquainted — heaven forbid. That's why relatives poke their heads in at regular intervals to ask if the future spouses would like something to drink.

Never demonstrate any sign of weakness

Farah was a virgin prior to her marriage and had absolutely no notion of sex. Her parents never spoke to her about it. The schools don't offer sex education either. Instead they teach young women home economics. Just 17 at the time, Farah was delighted by her future husband. He was good-looking, mild-mannered, and had passed her family's rigorous background check. But she had little idea of how marriage works or what she should hope for.

Her husband didn't mind her pursuing a college education. But when she got pregnant, traditional role models surfaced and Farah realized that she didn't really know her husband. Her husband very rarely displayed any feelings, and Farah suffered from his repressed emotions. "I wanted a husband who could speak openly about his fears, worries and desires," she says.

Patriarchal societies also force men to take on a proscribed role, and one of the cardinal rules of that role is to never demonstrate any sign of weakness. All these repressed emotions led to recurring fights and eventually, Farah just couldn't take it any longer. She filed for divorce despite the fact that the timing was rather difficult. She had just become a mother, was finishing her degree in communication studies and had no money. On top of that, her father was sick. And yet she's never regretted taking the step.

Exercising her rights

Many women now do what Farah did, especially in the upper classes, where often women are the ones who demand a divorce, says Heba Kotb, a family and sex therapist in Egypt. Kotb studied first in Cairo and later in Florida, where she earned a doctorate. She had her own television show in Egypt from 2005 until 2014 called "Big Words' in which she answered questions about sex and relationships in general.

Regarding divorce, Kotb says there's a huge difference in the Arab world between rich and poor families. "The more educated the woman, the more demanding and the less dependent she is on her husband," the therapist explains. "Many women have told me, "I don't need a husband, quite the opposite in fact, he only holds me back." But it's very different in poorer families where the husband often wants to shirk the financial responsibility, and simply disappears. The woman is then left alone with the children while her husband does not even file for divorce. So the wife remains married and cannot enter another marriage."

At first, Farah's family was unhappy that she filed for divorce. She had just become a mother after all. But she knew her rights. Even in Islamic countries, divorce is possible, although different rules apply to men and women. The man is able to dissolve the marriage much more easily by simply saying the words "you are divorced." A woman can dissolve the marriage through exercising the right of the divorce slogan ("khula" in Arabic) and uttering the same words, but only if the divorce is mutually agreed.

In Farah's case, her husband wouldn't agree to a mutual divorce. And so Farah decided to make use of "talaq" — special divorce rights for women — which allowed her to end the marriage but meant she'd give up her "bride gift." Bride gifts are something the groom presents his wife in the form of gold jewelry, an apartment or cash, depending on the couple's means.

For that, she had to relinquish her bride gift.

When Farah's parents realized just how set their daughter was on getting a divorce, they ended up supporting her. Kotb sees that kind of change of heart as another sign of the times. "Of course people want to avoid divorce, especially when there are children involved. But it isn't a societal taboo any longer," she explains.

Farah's ex-husband cried in court, saying he didn't want to let Farah go. For that reason, Farah had to relinquish her bride gift. "I was never interested in his money, anyway," she says. The divorce was effective after nine months of court proceedings. It was only that that Farah "finally felt free."

As a UAE citizen and a divorced woman, Farah received accommodation and financial aid from the state. Today, she has a management-level position in a state-owned company and is a single mother. Her daughter is nine. "I want my daughter to love herself first before she loves someone else," says Farah. "She shouldn't marry to feel complete. She should understand love as something wonderful but supplementary."

Farah does sometimes miss the feeling of being married. But not the fact that she was married to someone she barely knew. Still, she believes in the institution of marriage and would love to share her life with a man. "Nowadays, I am waiting to find true love," she says. "If it does come around, that'd be wonderful. But if it doesn't, it's still better to be single than to be just married on paper."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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