A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Divorce remains one of the pressures that patriarchal societies use against women. When women refuse to continue with marriages that cause them to suffer, they think twice before resorting to divorce due to the social consequences that threaten their chances of a dignified life afterwards. Though it should be a right, ideally enshrined in law, divorce comes with a high price that traps women between impossible options, where they have to choose between their mental/physical health or attempting to co-exist with a society that strips them of their basic rights. Consequently, many women end up living in silence while suffering from life with a violent partner so that they do not suffer from the socially inflicted stigma that comes with the ‘divorced’ title. Many women experience verbal, emotional and physical violence from their husbands. However, they end up staying in these violent marriages out of fear of their limited options, and suffering further after getting a divorce.
Women are afraid of losing custody of their children and they fear deprivation of basic financial rights under unjust legislation. Additionally, many women fear the stigma attached to divorced women, which also triggers fear of loneliness and reduces their chances of living with dignity with a future partner. Some women hesitate when it comes to getting a divorce because they do not have anywhere else to go, especially when they are not economically independent.
Zainab, who is in her 40s, is afraid of divorce even though her husband’s cruel treatment has not changed for the 20 years since they got married. She got married at a young age and lived an unstable life, with her mother-in-law in the same house. When she passed away, Zainab handled responsibility for the household and endured her husband’s difficult financial situation. He, however, has always been aggressive and verbally hurtful. She endured all that he does because she has nowhere else to go. Her family lives in a village far from the city and they, too, have a low income. She tries to endure this intolerable life so she can take care of her children. She says: “I do not have any other option. If I had a place of my own, I would not think twice before getting a divorce. My children are not that young anymore and I do not have to worry about them that much. It is my financial situation that keeps me from ending this marriage. I remain patient until God gives us a way out.”
Zainab is not the only woman suffering from a violent husband. Safa’a (an alias like the rest of the names of the women we spoke to) is in her late 20s and has been suffering from all forms of violence, including extreme physical violence. Safa’a expresses with agony: “Nobody has ever been as humiliated as I have.” Her husband beats her and calls her names regularly in front of their 7-year-old only child. Their daughter, as Safa’a has described, has become increasingly introverted and hot tempered as a result of the violence she witnesses every day. As for why she is still married, Safa’a says: “I married him eight years ago to escape my family’s hell. I was the only daughter among four sons. My life turned into a more raging hell with him. When I think of leaving him, I remember how hard it is at my father’s house. I endure all the violence and beating because I am terrified of the word ‘divorced’, especially as I dropped out of school and have no means to support myself or my only daughter.”
Samar who has been divorced once refuses to go through it again after her second marriage. She was forced to marry when she was 15. Her father used to say that after this age a girl would become a spinster if she did not marry, and so he forced all his daughters to drop out of school and marry at a very young age. She says: “I lived with my first husband for four years and handled responsibilities that I was too young for. I was not able to tolerate that marriage, especially as I was still dreaming of finishing my education. When that marriage ended, I lived three years with the title ‘divorced’. That was also intolerable for the unfair way society views a divorced woman who is considered a failure and an easy prey if she goes to work or school. This is what happened to me, and I finished a diploma after high school with enormous difficulty.” Samar married a university professor and accepted being a second wife with the hope that she would find some stability. Sadly, she was confronted with a different reality with an aggressive and paranoid husband. He sometimes locks her in the house and does not allow her to leave the house without being accompanied by either his mother or sister. She bitterly adds: “I do sometimes think of getting a divorce to gain my freedom back. But what I went through after my first divorce and the way I was treated by my family and community makes me reject the idea. Society kills women and participates in inflicting injustice upon them. Even women, themselves, treat other divorced women as inferior.”
Many Yemeni families force their daughters to stay with abusive husbands. This happens especially in tribal rural areas where a woman’s divorce is considered a shameful stigma. Amina who lives in one of the rural villages was forced by her father and the rest of the family to go back to her husband when she came to them and told them she asked for a divorce. Her husband, who she married willingly, drastically changed the way he treated her six months after the wedding. His cruel treatment made her avoid him, especially in their intimate relationship. She says: “He would force me to sleep with him multiple times and when I refused, he would beat and rape me. I did not tell anyone but when I was not able to take it anymore, I told my mother that I wanted a divorce because of his cruelty. My family blamed his abuse on me. They said I failed to change him to the better and my father said he couldn’t have divorced daughters. So I went back to my husband’s house and continued suffering. I live in some peace at the moment after he traveled abroad to a Gulf country. I hope he never comes back.”
Some women keep silent for a very long time while experiencing violence and abuse. They try to find distractions from a violent husband and society in their daily duties. Family counselor, Altaf al-Ahdal, the head of the social work department at the Taiz office of the Ministry of Social Affairs, says that women keep silent out of fear and lack of economic independence. Depriving girls of education adds another layer to the problem. Al-Ahdal adds: “Families fear the social stigmatization of divorced women. This is why they keep women under the constraint of tradition, and this is what contributes to silencing women before violent husbands.”
Women also fear living in loneliness and an emotional vacuum. Additionally, there is fear for the children who have to endure the stigma that follows them for having divorced mothers. Many young women escape their abusive male relatives to marriages that end up repeating the same violent cycle, and this is why a woman may weigh up her choices and choose to remain with one abusive man instead of multiple men.
Unfair legislation plays a significant role in standing between women and their rights in a divorce. Ibtisam, for example, decided to withdraw her divorce appeal and went back to living with her husband because of the court’s treatment of her case. She says: “I was beaten and humiliated by my husband in front of my four children. This made me appeal to the court to get a divorce. The lawyer shocked me when he said that court rules deny me all my financial rights and grant my children a monthly support of 5,000 riyals per child only. How can my children and I live with this amount? This made me go back to my husband. I simply cannot afford a divorce.”
Raghda al-Maqtari, a lawyer and a member of the attorneys union in Taiz, says that women are forced to live with violent men because of traditions that support men and look down on divorced women. Legislation does not protect women and their children either. She also adds that some legislation grants women their rights, but they are not activated in reality; but legislation that criminalizes domestic violence can change the way society deals with divorced women.
In a society that does not acknowledge women’s rights, whether married or divorced, social and legal constraints continue to hinder women’s chances in choosing their fate freely. If they survive the divorce battle with husbands, another battle begins afterwards for their rights. Even if they manage to acquire their rights after a divorce, the hardest battle of all awaits with the society that stigmatizes them.
Rania Abdullah is a Yemeni journalist, radio and television producer, and editor secretary at the Family and Development magazine since 2006.