Absolutely disgraceful: Every women should have the 'Isma' clause in the marriage contract.
Recalling the day her Islamic divorce was finalized, Olivia says she was ecstatic.
"It was almost like having a noose around your neck, and (I was) just relieved that somebody doesn’t have that power over you, and you’re out of such a hostile situation," she said.
Olivia, who asked not to be identified by her real name, separated from her husband after six years of marriage and divorced him in civil court, but when he refused to grant her a religious divorce, she traveled across the country for four years, meeting with imams in different cities asking for a divorce.
"I went to 10 imams," said the Dearborn, Mich., woman, showing off a permanent scar on her left palm from a glass cut from an altercation with her ex-husband.
Olivia shared stories of abuse with imams, including the time she was whacked in the head repeatedly with a key. "I had a concussion. He knocked me upside my head. You know those thick keys, like a Toyota key, the thick ones, he just bashed it into my head about 10 times," she said.
She eventually got a religious divorce, but not from an imam. Olivia’s husband finally agreed to divorce her, after he saw that she was serious about another man and was going to get married to him civilly, even if she didn’t get her religious divorce.
Olivia is now happily re-married and has been separated from her ex-husband for 13 years.
Many marriages are both a religious and a civil ceremony. And while a religious official in the United States can bring someone into both a civil and religious marriage, it's not so easy with a divorce. A civil divorce can only be initiated by the courts, which don't do anything about religious divorce.
In the Muslim community, a religious marriage is recognized with an Islamic marriage contract; therefore a divorce must be carried out by a religious institution and through a clergy members.
To many women, Islamic divorce can be more important than a civil divorce. It allows them to feel divorced in the eyes of God, seen as a religious obligation.
Even non-religious women may need an Islamic divorce to update their marital status in predominantly Muslim countries, which might follow the religious verdict. A woman, if she wants to get remarried and register her new marriage in a largely Islamic country, needs to be religiously divorced.
Not all women have difficulty getting an Islamic divorce. Of course, religious divorce is also an issue outside the Muslim community.
But Olivia’s story is not unique. Muslim women whose husbands refuse to divorce them religiously have one alternative: They must find an imam to grant them a religious divorce. The process, which can take years and involve traveling to meet with imams across the country, is what author Julie McFarlane calls "imam shopping."
McFarlane is a professor of law at the University of Ontario and says she receives emails from across the country from Muslim women who experience difficulty getting an Islamic divorce. "I tell them to go imam shopping," McFarlane said.
Shopping around for a divorce
When an Islamic woman wants a religious divorce, she typically can’t get one unless her husband agrees to divorce her.
There’s a double standard, because when a man wants a religious divorce he doesn’t need the consent of his wife or an imam. If a husband won’t divorce his wife, imams have the authority to grant the woman a divorce anyway, but only if there’s good reason.
Under Islamic Law, imams can grant divorces for reasons such as alcohol addiction, gambling, drug abuse, impotence and homosexuality, among other factors.
Imam Ali S. Ali, Director of Muslim Family Services in Detroit, says there are two main reasons men won’t divorce their wives. The first is they want to punish the woman and get revenge. The second is the man’s pride. "She rejected him, and he feels ashamed. He feels rejected," Ali said.
The power of "Isma"
It is important to note that women wouldn’t experience any difficulty getting an Islamic divorce, if they exercised the powers granted to them under Islamic law. One such power is the woman’s right to uncontested divorce, known as the "Isma."
Before a Muslim woman is married, she can place a provision in her Islamic marriage contract, asking for the "Isma." Under it, she can initiate a divorce at any time, without the consent of her husband or the approval of an imam.
"It’s not the religion. It’s the culture," said Melinda, another woman who didn’t want to use her real name. "Muslim men are not allowed to lay a hand on a woman. They are supposed to treat her like a queen. It’s a very good religion, and the Holy Quran gives women a lot of rights. It says to treat women good and with respect, but they don’t do that."
Melinda, who’s from Dearborn Heights, used the "Isma" when she remarried her ex-husband, because the first time they divorced, it was difficult to get an Islamic divorce, and she didn’t want to go through the process again.
But Women have to specifically ask for the "Isma."
"It’s not easy. The imams don’t give you a divorce right away, and you have to go and explain and, even if you have many reasons, they still want to give the guy, the man, the upper hand. If you go and say that my husband is hitting me. He mistreated me; they would say you have to be patient. They would say that’s not an excuse," she said.
According to Melinda, her husband was controlling, in addition to being physically and verbally abusive. She wasn’t allowed to wear pants, or eyeliner.
He promised he would change, but never did, and when she went to divorce him the second time around, she had no problems and didn’t need approval from an imam or her husband, because she had the "Isma."
"I told him many times I wanted a divorce, but the way some men treat women who are from other countries; they think that you are weak, that you can’t make decisions or go and find a life by yourself," Melinda, who’s from Lebanon said.
Melinda says if it weren’t for the "Isma," the second time around, she would still be married to him, because he would have never divorced her. "I wrote in the contract of the marriage that I can divorce him anytime I want," she said. But not all women are able to get the "Isma." It needs the approval of the husband, who must also sign the contract.
Mona Fadallah, a divorce attorney, who practices family law in Canton, Mich., says "Isma" is typically frowned upon and not accepted among very conservative families.
"This will not work in the situation where the families are more in control of the marriage. The more traditional families will not go for it," Fadallah said. "I feel like if you exercised it, there would be no Islamic divorce issues."
Melinda says, in the culture, "Isma" is viewed as shameful, and puts the man down.