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

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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

Delivering On Our Promise of Universal Education

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A young girl studies at home in Gujarat, India. © UNICEF/Panjwani

Our investment in education – especially for children caught in crisis and conflict – is our investment in a better future.

Co-Signed by: Federal Councillor of the Swiss Confederation, Ignazio Cassis; Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany, Svenja Schulze; Minister of Education, Niger, Ibrahim Natatou; Minister of International Development, Norway, Anne Beathe Tvinnereim; Minister of General Education and Instruction, South Sudan, Awut Deng Acuil; Minister of Education, Colombia, Alejandro Gaviria; Former UK Prime Minister, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of ECW’s High-Level Steering Group The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown

As we mark the International Day of Education, world leaders must make good on their promise of providing quality education for all by 2030.

Education is our investment in peace where there is war, our investment in equality where there is injustice, our investment in prosperity where there is poverty.

Make no mistake about it, there is a global education crisis that threatens to unravel decades of development gains, spur new conflicts, and upend economic and social progress across the globe.  

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted at last year’s Transforming Education Summit: “If we are to transform our world by 2030 as envisaged by the Sustainable Development Goals, then the international community must give this (education) crisis the attention it deserves.”

When Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the United Nations global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, was founded in 2016, we estimated that 75 million crisis-impacted children required education support. Today, that number has tripled to 222 million.

Of the 222 million children whose right to an education has been ripped from their hands by the multiplying impacts of conflict, climate change and other protracted crises, an estimated 78 million are out of school all together – more than the total populations of France, Italy or the United Kingdom.

Even when they are in school, many are not achieving minimum proficiencies in reading or math. Think about this terrifying statistic: 671 million children and adolescents worldwide cannot read. That’s more than 8% of the world’s total population. That’s an entire generation at risk of being lost  

As we have seen from the war in Ukraine, the challenges of the Venezuelan  migration to Colombia and South America, the unforgiveable denial of education for girls in Afghanistan, and a devastating climate change-driven drought in the Horn of Africa that has created a severe hunger crisis for 22 million people, we are living in an interconnected world. The problems of Africa, the Middle East, South America, and beyond are the problems of the world that we share together   

Every minute of every day, children are fleeing violence and persecution in places like Myanmar, the Sahel, South America and the Middle East. Every minute of every day, boys are being recruited as child soldiers in Somalia, the Central African Republic and beyond. Every minute of every day, the climate crisis brings us closer to the end of times, and children go hungry because they are denied their right to go to school, where they might just have their only meal of the day. And amid conflict, migration and climate change, governments like Colombia are struggling to secure the most basic living and education conditions for children in hard-to-reach borders.

It’s an assault on our humanity, a moral affront to the binding promises outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a giant step backwards in our persistent efforts – against all odds – to find peace in our times.

There is hope. By embracing a new way of working and delivering with humanitarian speed and development depth, ECW and its strategic partners have reached 7 million children in just five years, with plans to reach 20 million more over the next four years.

Imagine what an education can mean for a child of war? In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 13-year-old Nyota lost her father and brothers in a brutal attack on her village. Her family’s home was burnt to the ground.

In a country where 3.2 million children are out of school, Nyota’s future was bleak. Would she be a child bride, the victim of sexual violence, another tragic statistic in a forgotten crisis?

No. She did not give up. With the support of an innovative programme funded by ECW, Nyota is back in school. “When I have completed my studies, I dream of becoming the President of my country to end the war here. That will allow children to study in peace and not endure the same horrible things that I have.”

Nyota is not alone: we have received inspiring letters from girls and boys in over 20 crisis-affected countries across the world that underscore the amazing value of education in transforming lives and creating a better future for generations to come.

On February 16, world leaders are gathering for the Education Cannot Wait High-Level Financing Conference in Geneva. Hosted by ECW and Switzerland – and co-convened by Colombia, Germany, Niger, Norway and South Sudan – the conference provides world leaders, businesses, foundations and high-net-worth individuals with the opportunity to deliver on our promise of education for all. The aim is to raise US$1.5 billion for the next four years.

As the co-conveners of this seminal event, we are calling on the people of the world to invest in the promise of an education. It’s the best investment we could make in delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Nyota and millions like her are not giving up on their dream, and we shouldn’t give up on them. We have promises to keep. 

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Education starts early – or it should

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Authors: Manos Antoninis and Silvia Montoya*

When children attend early childhood education, they are not just learning their ABCs and 123s, they are learning how to solve problems, live in harmony with others and communicate effectively. Going to pre-primary education increases the  chance to grow and flourish in a nurturing and stimulating environment. It is an opportunity to provide children with the skills they need to succeed in school and in life.

Thankfully, early childhood education is something that more and more children are accessing: over the past two decades, the rates of those attending rose from 65% to 75%. Countries have put pen to paper, committing to taking this up a level. As part of a multi-year exercise, they have set national benchmarks for the progress they feel they can make between now and 2030 on helping more young children start their education in their early years, alongside other objectives. On the occasion of the 2023 International Day of Education, UNESCO published a global report, the 2023 SDG4 Scorecard showing how fast countries are progressing towards their national benchmarks on Sustainable Development Goal 4 (quality education). These benchmarks commit countries to together open school doors to 95% of five-year-olds by the 2030 deadline for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

These ambitions are not messing around. Conversely to what you might expect, countries have actually set their targets far higher than one might expect considering how they’ve done in the past. Even if they managed to improve at the rate of the historically fastest-improving quarter of countries, they would only manage to reach the stage where 83% of children were going to early childhood education. At present, therefore, barely one in three countries is on track with their self-set targets. How can we help them speed up? 

Having monitored education for the past 20 years, a few clear lessons jump out that can help countries break the speed barriers we’re keen to impart. While simple education reform is not very common, this first example is at least compact. Our recommendation is for countries to legislate and provide for free and compulsory education, which about a half of countries have done so far. Since 2015, for example, the introduction of three years of free education in Armenia, four years in Uzbekistan and three – and later five – years in Azerbaijan is associated with a large increase in participation rates.  While one policy change cannot be assessed out of context, there is a clear jump in children’s early education access across these countries post the new legislation.

Where we see these laws lagging is in low income and, more generally, sub-Saharan African countries. For all those who join us in believing in the importance of the foundations that early childhood can bring, Sub-Saharan Africa should be a region where we direct our support over the coming years. Not only are fewer than half of children starting school early, but its population prospects will make the challenge harder over time. It is projected that sub-Saharan Africa will surpass Central and Southern Asia by 2026 as the region with the largest number of 4-5 year olds in the world. This cohort will grow by 1 million on average in the next 20 years. Population growth will slow down but will still reach 100 million in 2069. The region will be the home to a staggering 43% of all five-year-olds on planet earth by the end of the century.

The second recommendation we believe can make a difference is also a governance issue, and relates to the fact that the first education experiences of 40% of children in the world today is with private providers. Much of this trend can be linked to the fact that there was not enough supply related to demand, and private providers grew to fill the gap.

This phenomenon can’t be ignored in some areas of the world. In Oceania, for example, some countries have close to 100% of preschool students enrolled in non-state institutions. These can be for-profit and non-profit organizations, such as child-care centers, preschools, and home-based childcare providers, for example.  Their presence can bring significant financial implications, and therefore, barriers, to families, and detract from the original reason they exist in the first place: to increase education for all.  With the provision part removed from government’s control, it means that their ability to regulate the quality and equity of the myriad of alternative early childhood education providers – and monitor them – is vital.

For much of the pandemic, the GEM Report team at UNESCO mapped over 200 country profiles on its PEER website to look further into the regulations countries currently have for private providers in early childhood education. What we found is that those covering equity are in the minority: only 26% of countries support specific vulnerable populations’ tuition fee payments and just 15% prohibit non-state providers from operating for profit.  On the positive side, however, we also found that turning these numbers on their head could also see a huge surge in participation rates. When governments have regulations in place helping out some of the most marginalized groups with tuition fees, for instance, the percentage of children who participate in organized learning one year before entry to primary school is higher by 13 percentage points, whereas countries with fee-setting regulations have a 7 percentage-point higher participation.

Our third but equally critical recommendation covers the extent to which governments prioritise education in the early years in their spending. We looked at the countries with data from the last two years and found they were spending just 0.43% of GDP on pre-primary education – pittance in comparison to the benefits an early education can bring. There is a clear correlation between how much was spent on public education and the rise of participation rates as a result. Doubling spending from 0.25 to 0.50 of GDP, we found, triples participation rates in public preschools from 20% to 60% on average, and is a clear win for improving progress on this issue.

As any education policy maker will tell you, there is no one easy fix for system reform. Sadly, this is the reason the sector fails to attach the funding it needs to transform and deliver to match our expectations. But, where there are lessons that our past mistakes and successes have taught us, we should take them, and not waste further time. Education can and should start early. If we legislate, regulate and finance appropriately, we can help countries’ ambitions to make that happen a reality.

*Silvia Montoya, Director of UNESCO Institute of Statistics

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New Social Compact

A Cry for Help: Pakistan’s Broken Education System

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Photo: UNICEF/PAKISTAN/Asad Zaidi

The saying “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”, attributed to Derek Bok – the former president of Harvard University, holds a plethora of resonance for a developing country like Pakistan. Compared to the global standard of spending 4% of GDP on education, Pakistan only spends around 2.3% of its GDP on education, which happens to be the lowest in the South-Asian region.  The inadequate spending on schools stems from the government’s nonchalant attitude and general disinterest in the education sector. Because of this, Pakistan’s budget allocation for education is far less than what is advised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

The 2019 Annual Status of Education Report shows the overall literacy rate in the country to be 60%, with 71% male literacy rate compared to 49% female literacy. Despite these statistics showing an improvement from the past trends, the Human Development Report of 2019 remained unfazed. According to the findings of the report, Pakistan failed to show significant improvements in key educational indicators concerned with the rate of literacy, overall enrolment ratio, and education related expenditure. In the same year, Pakistan was also ranked 152nd out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI) under the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). 

Comparing Pakistan’s Education sector to other developing countries in the region further paints a dismal picture, as Pakistan lingers behind it its quest in providing quality education. Pakistan suffers from the third-highest primary school dropout rates in the region, estimating at 23%, only behind countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal. In a 2016 Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report titled “Education for People and Planet: Creating Sustainable Futures for All”, it was found that Pakistan is 50 years behind in achieving its primary education goals, while adding another 10 years in its path to achieving its secondary education goals.

For the most part, the policy maker’s one-stop solution for increasing the level of education in Pakistan has focused on raising the enrollment rates in primary schools. While this approach emphasized more on the quantity of education being provided, it has done little to cater to the quality and expense of the education itself. This is reflected in the learning levels of public schools in Pakistan, which are astonishingly low as student’s performance in academics is hugely underwhelming, compared to the acceptable standard. This shortcoming in the public education is mainly attributed to the dearth of incentives for public sector teachers. Which translates into low teaching effort, since any chance at salary increment and promotion is directly related to seniority and experience and not the teacher’s actual performance.

In view of these prevalent conditions of the public sector education, Pakistan witnessed a sudden boom in low-fee private education institutions in early 2000’s, which outnumbered state-run schools in both quantity and quality. With ample availability of low-cost teachers in rural areas due to lack of other job opportunities, these schools quickly expanded in the region and provided multiple schooling options for the 63% of the population which resides in the rural setting. Despite the private sector teachers being underpaid and under-experienced compared to their public sector counterparts, the learning levels of students in private schools has been much better. This is mostly due to effective teaching pedagogy, curriculum design and proper oversight which gives private schools an edge over public sector ones. 

In the Human Rights Watch Report titled “Shall I Feed My Daughter, Or Educate Her?”: Barriers to Girls’ Education in Pakistan”, the Pakistani government’s inability to adequately  educate the girls also surfaced. Liesl Gerntholtz, the Women’s Rights Director at Human Rights Watch commented “The Pakistan government’s failure to educate children is having a devastating impact on millions of girls”. The report stated that the majority of the 22.5 million children that are out of school are girls, who are simply barred from attaining education.

However, many of the barriers to girl’s education lie within the education system of the country itself. The State takes on a lasses-faire approach towards providing education in the country. And instead relies on private sector education and Madrassahs to bridge the gaps in education provision. Thus the girls are deprived of a decent education in the process. The government’s inadequate investment in schools is another main culprit for the number of girls that remain out of school. As girls finish primary school, secondary schools are not as widespread and their access to the next grade is hindered. Furthermore, while the Constitution of Pakistan claims that primary schooling be free of charge, it is not actually the case. Hence, most parents with constrained resources opt to educate their sons over their daughters. As a result, once girls are dropped out of schools, there is no compulsion by the state to re-admit the girls into school. Therefore, a chance once lost is lost forever.

Towards the end of 2019, Covid-19, which emerged in the wet markets of Wuhan, quickly took the world by storm. It forced the entire world into lockdown, and resulted in a major humanitarian and economic catastrophe, ultimately affecting the Education Sector as well. This compelled Pakistan to take swift notice of the virus and announce country-wide closure of educational institutes from beginning of February 2020. It wasn’t for another six months that educational institutions were reopened with strict SOPs in place, only to be shut down again amidst the second wave of the virus. And so due to these conditions, the education sector in Pakistan faced a devastating loss of learning. The virus not only exposed the cracks in the country’s education system, but it also further amplified them.

According to a report published by the World Bank “Learning Losses in Pakistan Due To Covid-19 School Closures: A Technical Note on Simulation Results”, it was predicted that a loss of livelihood due to Covid-19 could translate into a severe case of children dropping out of schools. The study estimated an additional 930,000 children that are expected to drop out of the fold of education, and thus increasing out-of-school percentage by 4.2 percent.

Similarly, the report also mentioned that the learning levels in schools could drop to anywhere between 0.3 and 0.8 years of learning. Therefore, an average student now only attains an education level of 5 years due to poor quality of education, despite going to school for 9 years. Furthermore, in wake of covid-19, the share of children who are unable to read basic texts by age 10, represented by “Learning Poverty” are further expected to go up 4 percent from 75 to 79 percent. As schools were shut down across the country, many of them were also unable to transition into online mode of learning. This was because the state failed to provide internet access to remote regions of the country. Hence, Covid-19 proved to be a huge setback for the education sector of Pakistan.

To conclude, while significant steps have been taken to strengthen the education sector of Pakistan, such as the unanimous passing of the Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan and the dedication towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to provide quality and equitable education; there still remains a gap between policy formation and its implementation. Despite the education policies of Pakistan focusing on science and technology, nationalizing private education institutions, increasing the number of student enrollment and improving their access to higher education, it still failed to improve in the education indicator of the HDI in the past decade. In view of this, Pakistan needs to rethink its education policies and fill gaps that currently exist between what is decided and what is implemented.

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