Divorce procedures -- for women
February 8, 2002
I had an email from my very good old friend who lives in England. It was an unusually
short note of one sentence, but the tone was urgent: "You should write about
my Islamic divorce. I am too angry to write I will call you and explain."
Never being one to be able to wait for a telephone call, I went to the phone, my
pack of Marlboro lights in hand -- a good phone conversation is a great opportunity
for a smoke for those of us unfortunate enough to still smoke occasionally. I dialed
up London after a few screw-ups with the new code, which I never seem to want to
remember. But before I tell you about the conversation, I will give you some background
on my friend Shirin.
She is by far the most "together" of all my friends. She married a European
and after twelve years and a couple of children she and her husband separated. I
used the example of her divorce as a testament to the ability of people to be fair
and reasonable, whenever discussing the subject with friends.
Her husband had been a real gentleman. He had moved out at her request but had been
available to her and the children at all times. He had been hurt but he never disputed
anything or denied her what she wanted. He was, in short, the very model of gentlemanly
I wondered if the very faux-aristocratic pompousness that so irritated me about him
was not the cause of his dignified and noble behavior when my friend asked him to
Anyway the guy was everything you would want in a husband
that is just being told to pack it. He was devastated but civil. Rejected but supportive.
I always used this man as an example of how men can be fair even when rejected.
And so Shirin had the easiest divorce that I have ever seen. No fights. No accusations.
A few tears and lots of talking and that was it. I used to think "Boy these
people are more graceful, poised and quiet about this than I was about my most insignificant
breakup with a college boyfriend."
So everything went as smoothly and as easily as was possible in these situations
with my friend's separation and eventual divorce. Until now when my Shirin's experience
in obtaining her Islamic divorce made her feel, as she put it, "more humiliated
than ever in my life."
Six years has passed since my friend's husband moved out. She had to obtain her Iranian
divorce. She calls the Iranian consulate in London and they directed her to go to
the Islamic Center of London and ask the resident hojatoleslam to grant her the divorce.
She called first. She told the cleric she had already obtained her divorce according
to British law, but that she needed to obtain an Islamic divorce so that it would
be acceptable according to laws in Iran.
For a good ten minutes the cleric went on lecturing her, ershaad--ing in the
way peculiar to aakhoonds, about the wrongs of divorce. He was oblivious to
her interruption and her explanations that it had been six years since their separation
and that the husband wants to remarry and is living with someone else.
Finally, fed-up, she told the man, "Look if you do not perform the divorce I
will have to call the embassy for someone else's name." So the man agreed to
give her an appointment. The hojatoleslam also asked for her email so he could send
the necessary forms for her to fill out and sign.
All her husband had to do besides signing and faxing a form was to call the hojatoleslam
and verbally tell him on the phone that he wished to divorce my friend. No questions.
The day before her appointment Shirin called to see if all her forms had arrived
and if she needed to bring anything else. The hojatoleslam asked her if she was having
her "pereeyod". Shocked, she answered, no. He explained that if it was
her period she could not have a divorce until she was "clean". She once
again assured the turbaned stranger on the other side of the phone that she was indeed,
one hundred percent not menstruating.
When she arrived he apologized for keeping her waiting. He explained that the police
had been there. Apparently an English woman had become insanely angry when she found
out that her husband had married another woman behind her back. So she had called
the cops on the man who performed the wedding.
Hojatoleslam explained to my friend that he had only read a harmless sighye mehrabaani
or a "kindness - concubinage pact" in the ears of the couple and that he
just did not understand these English women. "Why is he telling me this?"
my friend asked herself. "He should see that I am not wearing a hejab. Does
he think I am on his side?"
After this little gem of a story of his, the cleric asked my friend again if she
had her "pereeyod". "How can they be sure of my answer?" thought
my friend. "Do they have a way to check?" Anyway she was given another
form to fill where she had to list in one column all the days she was "clean"
and in another column all the days she was "unclean" for the past three
The hojatoleslam went on to ask my friend -- a total of five times -- if she was
sure she did not have her period. He probably got off on this stuff
and she would not put it beyond him that is what she felt.
I have often felt an incredible sexual mood in the whole rapport of an aakhoond
and a woman. The way they avoid the gaze and turn their eyes to the side or down
always immediately sexualizes women -- you feel like you are naked and they have
to avoid looking at you. As if a mere sight is enough to arouse them.
Then he went to the other room to read the sermon of divorce. She wondered why after
all this he had to be in another room to say the surreh of talagh,
or verses from the Koran relating to divorce. But she was happy to be let out of
there quickly. So she patiently waited.
When he came back he told her that she was now a divorced woman. He then asked her
if she wanted to be put on the center's singles list. She told him no thank you and
left there in a hurry. He handed her a folder containing her papers and she thanked
him, remembering not to shake hands and headed out the door.
Crying under her umbrella, Shirin walked the gray streets of London taking stock
of her life. She was angry and deeply saddened about the little Islamic rite she
had just gone through. A divorce is never easy she told me, and this humiliating
farce made her feel more than ever like a helpless woman.
When she got home she saw an application for a dating service for the Islamic center,
including a letter from a man. It was addressed to the hojatoleslam and went something
like this, "I am [so and so], a Shiite from Saudi Arabia. I have a wife and
six children. I am looking for a good Shiite wife from the UK. Can you help me in
The next day she found her email box full of requests from other singles from the
center and from all over the world.
"There is a whole global marriage network for Shiites," she told me in
amazement. I told her well that is a positive. She laughed and told me that she wrote
and asked to be omitted from the email list. Imagine having to obtain a divorce from
the Saudi with six children who probably needed someone more like an au pair who
would perform sex, than a second wife!
Trying to calm my friend I told her that she was being overly sensitive about the
whole thing. The hojatoleslam was merely following ancient traditions. All these
laws about menstruation served the function of clarifying who was the father of the
child. In those days they did not have any DNA tests. They may have originally even
been meant to protect women.
"Yes but they are humiliating in this day and age. Plus why should one not be
pregnant and want a divorce?" I replied, "Are you kidding? This is the
least of the injustices. Your husband could divorce you without much effort or your
approval really. He does not even need to get a divorce. He can just marry someone
else without even telling you. Think of that English woman who had sent the cops.
Think about that. And think about those in Iran who cannot even get custody of their
children even when their husbands dump them."
Remembering how apolitical she always was, I told her it is funny how we become angry
when prejudice affects us directly and then try to analyze or brush it aside when
it affects us only indirectly.
My friend was never much interested in politics. She
is a scholar of literature and poetry, a soft-spoken Sufi of sorts, always meditating
and doing yoga and going back to Iran on these long soul-searching trips.
But now that she had lived through a humiliating experience being a Shiite woman,
she wanted someone to write about it. She felt intuitively that there was something
more important than an interaction with an annoying aakhoond in the safety
of London was at stake here. Political reality always has a way of spilling into
I told her that I had this naive assumption that maybe the more people know about
something being wrong the better chance that it will eventually be corrected. I thought
of how I never have registered my marriage with the Iranian embassy partly because
of laziness, but mostly because I believed the contract was inherently unjust.