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The Hard Way Out: Divorce by Khula

by Suad Hamada

Fadhila is only allowed to go to the toilet after asking permission from her husband, she also puts up with his frequent demands for sex – even when she’s menstruating – but neither is a valid enough reason to be granted divorce by Bahrain’s Shariah Court. So Fadhila’s only option is to seek Khula, or divorce without reason, from the judge. She may be granted her freedom, but there is always a price. Women who are awarded Khula are required to either financially compensate their husbands or give away their marriage settlements, including custody rights to their children. “There is no way out,” 23-year-old Fadhila tells me. “I have to end this marriage that took five years of my life, even [if it means] paying double the dowry.”

Fadhila’s case against her teen sweetheart was dismissed in court because according to the judge, meeting the sexual demands of her husband is a religious obligation. The judge also wasn’t convinced of his controlling nature. Her husband testified his jealousy kept him from giving Fadhila more freedom. His brothers, he explained, live with them at the family house and he just isn’t comfortable letting Fadhila use the toilet when they are around.

Khula was created to prevent slavery in the guise of marriage, but what is happening now is a far cry from the law’s original intent. Muslim women are now being asked to give away many things to secure their freedom. In the process, society marks them as evil home-wreckers. Although Islam was one of the few religions to permit divorce, deep discrimination against women has led to faulty interpretations of the Quran, effectively keeping the keys to divorce (along with many other privileges) squarely in the hand of men. According to Islamic regulations, wives – especially the newly wedded – must return their dowries if they want to end the marriage “without reason.” In Bahrain, it is common for women to also repay marriage expenses.

Though some abused women may be lucky to be granted divorce after years of court wrangling, those who are not are forced to seek Khula. Although most scholars here recognize the religious validity of Khula, it is rarely granted. Some say this has something to do with the increasing clash of conservative and liberal cultures.

Religious lecturer, Fatima Bosandel, doesn’t support to Khula. She tells me that older female generations in Bahrain used to respect marriage and their husbands, while young women want to end their marriages for silly reasons. She attributes the increase in Khula cases in the Arab world to the influences of westernization and women’s financial independence. “Women should remember that obeying and tolerating the bad habits of their husbands will bring them closer to God. One day their husbands could change for the better,” she reasons.

But hope for change isn’t what keeps most women hanging on. Ibrahim Al Miqitib, President of Saudi-based Human Rights First Society, says one of the women he’s worked with revealed to him that she couldn’t go bear to go through an endless legal case, even though her husband comes home everyday with the smell of another woman on his clothes. Knowing that she would lose all her rights, this woman sought Khula to end her marriage quickly.

Khula is implemented in Saudi Arabia but it is similar to other Arab countries – women are the ones who end up losing.” He says many Saudi women are forced to continue living with their abusive or unfaithful husbands as their families refuse to support their children.

Lack of financial support is the main problem Khula-seekers face after divorcing their husbands in Egypt, says Egyptian activist and lawyer, Aza Suleiman. After Khula was approved by Egyptian court in 2000, she conducted a study to evaluate Khula cases in the first two years of its implementation. Of 5,000 cases brought before the court, only 122 were approved. “Despite problems facing Khula-seekers, the implementation of Khula was a milestone achievement to all activists who have been fighting for it,” she highlights. “Women could spend years or even more than a decade to end divorce battles in Egyptian courts, but with Khula, women can buy their freedom faster.”

But it’s a high price to pay. Aza says “Khula-seeker divorcees find it difficult to remarry because of social misconceptions against them – a total of 99.6% live with their families.”

Khula isn’t easy in Bahrain either. Head of the Shariah Cassation Court, Shaikh Adnan Al Qatan reveals that many husbands blackmail their wives to give them a divorce. Though the practice is common, he says that of all the Khula cases that took place in Sunni Shariah courts last year, just a few blackmailing cases was proven. “I know about some cases where men asked for BD10,000-20,000 (US$26,000-$53,000) to divorce their wives but the payment never took place because of the court’s interference.” Although the courts came to the rescue in these cases, many others went unnoticed.

“I came a cross a man who blackmailed his six wives and forced them to pay him huge amounts of money as divorce settlements outside the court. He was finally exposed when his seventh wife rejected to pay and filed a legal case against him,” says Al Qatan. He says all women should seek the court’s assistance instead of being victimized by their greedy husbands. “Some men demand unrealistic amounts of money but the judge only obliges women to repay what they actually spent.”

Lawyer and female activist Shahzalan Khamees also has experience with blackmailing cases but she isn’t optimistic like Al Qatan. She says that the court has failed to protect many of her female clients from their blackmailing husbands. Though the amount might be reduced, in most cases women still have to pay to end the marriage.

Bahrain recently launched a campaign for more Khula-seeker rights entitled “Living Together in Love or Letting Go Peacefully”. Formed early this year by a group of local activists, the campaign calls for the recruitment of female judges. The group wants to ensure that women can start or end their marriages without humiliation and mistreatment, both from their husbands and male judges. At the moment, Bahrain has no female judges.

Khamees thinks replacing the outdated marriage contract, which hasn’t been changed significantly for the past 50 years, could be the best method to solve these issues.

“We want a marriage contract that could be like an agreement,” she explains, “with terms and conditions to protect the rights of both wives and husbands – especially if they want to end their marriage.”

Suad Hamada has been a journalist in Bahrain since 1997. Her writing focuses on politics and women’s empowerment in both Bahrain and the larger Arab region. She has participated in national campaigns for the elimination of discrimination against Bahraini women, seeking to give them a voice in a society – that while liberal in comparison to its neighbors – still marginalizes and oppresses its female citizens.

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