Tuesday, 11 December 2018

'I'm not his property': Abused Muslim women denied right to divorce



The first time Noor visited the Board of Imams Victoria, in Melbourne's Coburg North, to apply for an Islamic divorce, she took with her an audio recording she had secretly made during one of her husband's violent outbursts.

"It was of one night when he was screaming and yelling at me in front of the children," said Noor, a Muslim who wore a niqab during her decades-long marriage.

"He was verbally abusing me, smashing doors, ripping up sheets, putting down me and my family ... I taped it thinking no one would believe me."

Once inside the building, a glass-fronted office space wedged between an electrical store and a denture clinic on a sleepy stretch of Sydney Road, Noor sat down nervously before a panel of five male imams and carefully recounted the years of physical, emotional and financial abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband, who had recently breached the intervention order she had taken out against him.

He often criticised and yelled at her in front of the kids, she told ABC News, for petty reasons — for example, if she didn't prepare food to his liking.

And he beat her, she said, when she confronted him about his escalating financial abuse.

This was Noor's experience. Having presented the Board of Imams with what she believed was sufficient evidence, she was hopeful they'd acknowledge her husband's violence and swiftly grant a divorce.

Instead they dismissed the tape, she said, and told her to give the relationship another chance. "I honestly thought they weren't listening to me," she said. "They wanted me to go back and try again for the sake of the kids."

When she insisted she had tried, that she had made up her mind, they told her they needed to hear her husband's "side of the story" and that they'd be in touch after that.

It took six months for the Board of Imams to get back to her, Noor said, at which point they claimed to have forgotten the details of her case and asked her to come back in to retell her story.

Eventually, after a year of waiting, calling, praying, Noor — who had moved in with her parents — withdrew her divorce application, defeated and depleted.

"It killed me," she said. At that stage she wasn't interested in starting a new relationship; she simply longed to be free of a man who for years had controlled every aspect of her life.

For a long time, she believed his violence was her fault. "I would think it was reasonable", she said, "because I thought I'd done something wrong, and I deserved it."

He also repeatedly threatened to take another wife, which hurt and distressed Noor, not only because they were already struggling financially.

"I'm allowed to marry four women," he told her. "You have to change your Western mentality."

Now he was refusing to grant her a religious divorce.

Muslims in Australia may have a civil divorce, but if they do not also obtain a religious divorce, they are considered still married in Islamic law — and in the eyes of their community.

Getting an Islamic divorce, however, can be a difficult and protracted process, especially for women, who face stricter requirements for initiating divorce than men, depending on the laws of their cultural community.

While a husband is allowed to divorce his wife at any time, without cause, often imams will not grant a woman divorce without her husband's consent, or proof she has legitimate grounds for an annulment (which, depending on the legal school, can include infidelity, physical, financial or emotional harm, and sexual dysfunction).

In theory, domestic violence is one such reason: if a woman can prove her husband has been abusive — for example, by producing an intervention order, or photographs of her physical injuries — imams in Australia say they'll dissolve the marriage and hand over the paperwork, no problem.

But in practice, advocates and survivors say many imams are denying women the right to divorce, in too many cases detaining them in abusive marriages for years.


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