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Untying the Knot: Divorce and Women’s Rights in Islam

Alyssa Benoist

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Many religions have their own guidelines regarding marriage and what it entails. This information, found in religious texts and documents, tends to cover a wide range of marriage-related topics.

Such topics might include dowries, treatment of spouses, the roles of husbands and wives, polygamy, and even divorce. Islam, the second largest religion in the world, covers the concept of marriage and its dissolution in detail. Under Islamic law, otherwise known as sharia law, divorce is permitted, but there are separate rules regarding divorce for men and women. For a man, the manner of obtaining a divorce from his wife can be as simple as a phrase and a waiting period. For a woman, divorce from her husband is a far more complicated ordeal that tends to involve reimbursement to her husband, or sacrificing child custody and financial support. The infringement on women’s rights regarding divorce has been an issue in recent years, particularly as a result of modernization in Muslim countries and the backlash from conservative members of the public who are trying to maintain tradition. In several of the more conservative Muslim countries, there have been cases of women facing discrimination in the divorce process in the form of outrageous requirements or outright denial of divorce. This paper will discuss the subject of women’s rights regarding divorce within the context of Islamic tradition and modern society, as well as explain the current threat to women’s rights that arises from discriminatory divorce practices. This is an important issue in the Caspian region, as fully four of the five littoral nations are Islamic, with a diverse range in terms of secularism.

Divorce existed long before Islam, but according to Jaafar-Mohammad and Lehmann (2011), “The advent of Islam made the divorce process much more favorable to women” (np). This is because Islamic law allowed women to retain their property and earnings, as well as entitled a woman to support and maintenance from her former husband if she required it. Islam recognizes marriage as a contract and because marriage is a contract it can be dissolved through certain procedures. Islamic law recognizes three types of divorce: ta laaq, khula, and tafriq. Mohammed, edited by Greenberg (2008), explains the differences between the three. The first, ta laaq, is a form of divorce that can only be initiated by the husband. To invoke a divorce, the husband can use a verbal pronouncement to state his intention of divorce. However, the husband must undergo a waiting period based off of his wife’s menstrual cycles – typically three cycles – before the divorce can be considered finalized. The second form of divorce, khula (also spelled khul’), is also known as no-fault divorce. A khula divorce can be initiated by the wife, or by mutual consent of the husband and wife. No-fault divorce means that the person asking for a divorce does not need to prove martial misconduct in order to receive the divorce. Merely being unhappy with the marriage is sufficient grounds for ending the marriage. Through the process of khula, the wife “secures the divorce by paying an agreed sum of money, or by repayment of the dowry or part thereof.” The third form of divorce recognized by Islamic law is tafriq. Tafriq relies on the court to order the divorce “either in the absence of the husband, or upon his refusal to consider the wife’s petition.” Only ta laaq and tafriq entitle the woman to any sort of compensation or maintenance from her former husband.

Khula is referenced in both the Quran and Hadith. One of the famous cases in Islam regarding khula was the story of the wife of Thabit bin Qais. The wife of Thabit bin Oais told the Prophet that she did not like her husband and the Prophet asked her if she would return the garden that he gave her as a dowry. When she replied yes, the Prophet had Thabit take back the garden and divorce his wife (Sahih Bukhari Volume 7, Book 063, Hadith 197). This example of khula revealed that women did not need to show any obvious fault or reason for wanting a divorce. The woman only had to compensate her husband for what he had given her. However, as with most religious teachings, modern interpretations of what khula entails and how it is carried out tend to vary by region and state.

In more traditional societies, khula is viewed as having a negative impact and there are several members of these societies that would prefer to see khula laws repealed. Ghalwash (2011) explains the stance of opposition to khula in Egyptian society, writing, “Islamists particularly single out the khul’ law….They argue that this law does not reflect the values and customs of Egypt’s very traditional society….they agree on the fact that the khul’ law is bad for society and must be repealed” (np). Khula tends to be a woman’s last resort for divorce and societies attempting to repeal khula will undoubtedly create dangerous infringements on women’s rights.

Another reason cited as to why academics believe that women face inequality in the divorce process stems from the financial situation of women. Many women in Muslim countries cannot rely on the court for a tafriq divorce, which would grant them financial compensation from their husband. The reason women cannot rely on tafriq divorce can result from any number of factors, such as they do not meet the criteria for obtaining a divorce, they do not wish to wait the lengthy period it takes to obtain the court-based divorce, or they are unfairly denied a divorce based on a conservative or discriminatory ruling from the judge. Women who cannot obtain a tafriq divorce through the court have the option of filing for a no-fault khula divorce in order to end an unhappy marriage.

Khula divorce requires the relinquishment or compensation of funds from the woman and this can oftentimes serve as a deterrent for women wishing to obtain a divorce. In a study of divorced women in Pakistan, Critelli (2012) found “loss of valuable assets was a frequent consequence for the women, leaving them more vulnerable and with few resources to support themselves…. Several respondents lost inheritances of land and other property from their marriages. Others were embroiled in protracted legal challenges because of their husband’s efforts to deny them child support and maintenance.” Women in Muslim countries are oftentimes financially dependent on their husband and therefore do not have the necessary funds to pay back their dowries as required by the khula process. Furthermore, women who are unable to financially support themselves after a divorce because they have relinquished financial support from their husband through khula must instead rely on their family members for financial support. Many women are reluctant or unable to rely on family members because they do not want to be a burden or they do not have their family’s support after going against the social norm in the first place.

Islamic law is often criticized as being too backwards where women’s rights are concerned. In the case of divorce, Islamic law is actually much more liberal in some regards than the Western audience gives it credit for. Divorce is both allowed and acceptable under Islamic law and either the husband or wife can individually initiate the separation. What is far less liberal is the modern-day interpretation regarding divorce found in a number of conservative Muslim societies. But even then there are non-Muslim countries that are just as bad – if not worse – in matters regarding unfair divorce policies. While no divorce system in the world could be considered a perfect system, it is important to alter policies that are unfair against a certain population group. Ignoring the problem not only undermines the institution of marriage, but can also infringe on aspects of human rights. Ultimately, this may be one of the fundamental social issues that four of the five Caspian states need to make improvement on as they all integrate deeper into modern global society.

Alyssa Benoist is the America’s Region Intelligence Analyst for a Silicon Valley Fortune 500 tech company. She graduated with her Master's degree in International Security and Intelligence Studies from Bellevue University in Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

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New Social Compact

Nairobi summit: Women’s empowerment a ‘game changer’ for sustainable development

MD Staff

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UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, addresses the 25th Anniversary of the ICPD in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: UNFPA

The global goal of a sustainable future for all cannot be achieved until women, girls and young people gain control over their own bodies and lives, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed told world leaders meeting in Nairobi on Tuesday.

The Kenyan capital is hosting a three-day summit to mark 25 years since the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

The conference, held in Cairo, produced a Programme of Action which recognized that reproductive health, women’s empowerment and gender equality are critical to sustainable development.

Ms. Mohammed said it must be carried forward: “Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment and upholding women’s rights is a game changer – for poverty-reduction, inclusive growth, democratic governance, peace and justice,” she said.

“The Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved until women, girls and young people are able to control their bodies and their lives, and live free of violence. The power to choose the number, timing and spacing of children is a human right that can bolster economic and social development.”

SDGs deadline approaching 

For Ms. Mohammed, the Nairobi Summit is also an opportunity to mobilize political and financial momentum towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by world leaders in 2015. 

Next year will see the start of a Decade of Action ahead of the 2030 deadline. 

“We must continue to work  even harder towards preventable maternal and child mortality, achieving the unmet need for family planning, and eliminating violence and harmful practices against women and girls everywhere, not least in humanitarian and fragile settings,” the UN deputy chief told the gathering. 

As too many are still being left behind, Ms. Mohammed called for action. 

“Hundreds of millions of women and girls are still waiting for the promise to be kept. They have been waiting long enough,” she said. 

“It’s time for urgent and transformative change as we enter the decade of action to 2030. 

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New Social Compact

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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