In hushed tones, the topic of divorce, or khula, was discussed. How would it happen? Would he allow it? Aunt Amina’s marriage contract, signed years ago, had been drafted by an old imam, who had not thought to add a clause allowing her to petition for divorce. I did not understand the impute of the discussions then. I did know that I had never heard of divorce; the women around me, every single one, were either too young to be married or awaiting marriage or married with broods of children.
For days, my aunt remained in my grandmother’s room, leaving only to pray after the neighborhood mosque sounded the call. Sometimes she would join us at the dinner table, but she ate little, and did not speak at all. A few times we tried to joke with her, imagining that our childish insistence could lift her out of her misery, but we were unsuccessful. Parades of older male relatives came to the house and had conferences with my father and grandfather, from which all the women were excluded. The imam, who had performed her marriage, came to advise the family of the religious and legal options, providing little solace. The marriage contract he had drafted did not provide any options for her; it did not contain a clause forbidding polygamy, it did not provide for a significant settlement to be paid to her. As a divorced woman she would be destitute, stigmatized, and even more humiliated than as a rejected wife.
Then, one morning, as suddenly as she had appeared, my Aunt Amina was gone. Her belongings, which were neatly arranged on a bureau in my grandmother’s room, had been replaced by the porcelain knick-knacks that had stood there before her arrival. I was told that she had returned to “her” house, her husband’s home. Because the information supplied was so meager and because the uncomfortable silence she left in her wake provided so few clues to what had happened, I spent hours imagining what she must be going through. Her husband would marry this new woman and she would be there to witness it. Weddings are noisy affairs in Pakistan, and the arrival of a bride was always accompanied with fireworks, music, and fanfare. I imagined her standing at the upstairs window of her house looking down into the central courtyard and the other apartment, the one where the new bride would soon live. I imagined her alone, watching her own husband as a bridegroom greeting a new bride. The same relatives who had welcomed my aunt into the family, people who knew her family, who had pretended to care for her, would now sit, consuming large celebratory plates of rice and mutton and sweet delicacies to celebrate the second wife, unconcerned at how a life lay destroyed just upstairs.
The marriage happened. The new wife’s name was never mentioned in our house, a wishful invisibility, perhaps, that became a habit. In the end, their marriage arrangement was both surreal and terribly ordinary in its pragmatism. Her husband rotated wives every week; during “her” week he would live upstairs, take all his meals in her section of the house, and the following week he would switch. In the weeks she was “off,” my aunt was excused from all wifely duties. His affections, of course, were similarly divided; for years hence she would still talk of how hurtful it was to watch them get dressed and go off in the car while she watched from her upstairs window. Much of my aunt’s life was thus defined by this watching from windows, a constant vigil to see how her husband changed as he descended the stairs from her life with him to another one entirely. Divided thus between “off” and “on” weeks, her life oscillated between loved wife and abandoned wife, loneliness and servitude.
In the decades since I migrated to the United States, it was convenient to think of Aunt Amina’s story as something that took place “back there,” that had little or no relevance to my life as a Muslim woman in the US. I felt that a clean line could be drawn between the legal secular world in which I was being trained and the transcendent gray area of women’s rights and responsibilities in Islam. Muslim women living in the West could take advantage of rights available to women in the West, get divorced, remarry, and not have to worry that their husbands could take another wife. I was a practicing Muslim, but I did not believe that the messy issue of Sharia had any place in an American courtroom. It was easy, it seemed to me, to leave the vexing terrain of Sharia to be wrestled within the Muslim world.
It was with these assumptions that I began a one-year stint working at a domestic violence shelter in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had just finished defending a dissertation that focused on the choices between religious and gender identity that Muslim women face as members of minority communities in the West. A partnership between the domestic violence shelter and a local Muslim community organization provided a unique opportunity to work with women I had written about. The project aimed to provide legal assistance to Muslim women who were filing for divorce with the idea to show them that the community supported survivors and not their abusive husbands. It was meant to tackle head-on taboos that would otherwise prevent women from seeking separation. Providing a context that was sensitive to religious and cultural identity would help in the transition to independence.
Academia, with its well-known insularity, provides depth but also isolation. So, though I had passed the bar and begun to practice law, I had little experience working with abused women. I was well-schooled on the struggles of Muslim women, including their efforts to redefine the faith from within and to lobby for increasing representation and equality within mosques. But I saw the battle to define positions of equality within American Islam as issues only important to a small activist and scholarly minority, far from the realities of everyday lives of ordinary Muslim women. A secular legal system, in my opinion, provided sufficient protection to Muslim women in diaspora communities. In American law, I believed, lay the bulwarks of equality that would insure that, at least in the West, Muslim women would not be discriminated against.
(This is the second article of a four-part series. Part I appeared here. Parts III, and IV will be run later this week. Photo credit: arunjrk)
Rafia Zakaria is the first Muslm woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. This article was previously published at Guernica Magazine.