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Why are more Pakistani women choosing to divorce?

B. Mari Islamabad
September 14, 2022

Pakistani women are using a section of Islamic law allowing them to leave a marriage without their husband's consent. However, those who do still face danger and alienation from their community and family.

Women hold purple signs during the 2022 International Women's Day march in Islamabad
A women's rights movement in growing in Pakistan, empowering many women to leave abusive marriages Image: Rahmat Gul/ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance

More women in Pakistan are choosing to leave their marriages, despite divorce remaining a complicated social taboo in the country's conservative culture.

Women's rights activists say the increase comes as women in the Islamic nation's patriarchal society are becoming more empowered and are less willing to settle for abusive marriages.

In Pakistan, divorce is not monitored by any dedicated agency and rules are dictated by Sharia or Islamic law.

In the South Asian country, a woman cannot "file for divorce" but rather has the right to dissolve a marriage under Sharia without the consent of her husband. This is called a "khula" and is arbitrated by a family court.

There are several reasons for which a wife can seek a dissolution of marriage under khula. These include spousal abuse, the husband leaving or a husband's mental health issues.

Although official rates of women seeking to dissolve their marriages aren't recorded, the number of khulas seems to be rising.

According to a 2019 survey carried out by Gallup and Gilani Pakistan, 58% of Pakistanis believe that divorce is becoming more prevalent in the country.

The survey found that 2 in 5 of the respondents believed that a couple's in-laws were responsible for most of these cases. 

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Atika Hassan Raza, an attorney at the Human Rights Protection Center, a Lahore-based human rights non-profit, told DW that more women are seeking a khula. Cases of formal divorce in Pakistan must be initiated by the husband. Unlike a khula, the husband's consent is mandatory.

Raza added that there are more family courts being established that cater to family law, khula and guardianship issues. She noted that there has also been an increase in the number of family law judges.

Raza said more women are aware that they can leave marriages for reasons other than physical abuse, including psychological abuse or simply "not getting anything" out of a marriage.

"Women know about their rights and are more independent," she said.

Shazia (name changed) is a mother of two who left her abusive marriage last year. "I didn't have much of an education or work experience, but I had my cooking skills. Once my cooking business took off a bit and I felt I could become financially independent, I became emotionally independent enough to finally leave my marriage," the 41-year-old told DW. 

Shazia is able to support herself on what she earns, however, it is very difficult to give her sons the lifestyle she wants for them. Although Islamic law is very clear about women's right to alimony, the reality is that many women like Shazia do not receive anything from an ex-husband.

Pakistan's marriage culture

In Pakistan, marriages by choice are called "love marriages." However, arranged marriages are very common in the South Asian country. Couples signing a marriage contract before living together is also common.

A woman's hands decorated with henna for a wedding
Many marriages in Pakistan are arranged Image: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo/picture alliance

Kamal, a 33-year-old marketing manager, got married in 2018. However, he recently filed for divorce saying he was not "compatible" with his wife, despite having dated before marriage. 

"Unlike in the West, where people usually have live-in relationships before they get married, here you don't," he told DW.

"Even though we were technically married for a year, we were still technically just dating because we still didn't live together. It was only after living together that differences came out," he added.

Momin Ali Khan is a lawyer who has taken on more family law cases due to high demand. Khan told DW that women from educated or affluent backgrounds usually file for khula when the marriage is no longer working, even if it is at the cost of foregoing their dowry.

It is more challenging for women from rural areas or poor socioeconomic backgrounds, as they generally cannot forego the financial support, he added.

Hania (name changed) comes from a working-class family in Islamabad, and managed to earn a bachelors' degree, and aspires to get a high-paying job. She had been arranged to marry her cousin, but did not want to, despite her parents wishes.

On the day she was to depart to a village where her cousin lives for her wedding, the 23-year-old ran away. As a contract had already been signed for the marriage, Hania filed for a khula.

Due to the massive taboo and "shame" surrounding divorce in rural Pakistan, Hania was disowned by her family and told DW her life may be in danger if she returns to the village.

Now, Hania has married for "love" and is living with her husband and his family in Islamabad.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn