Reviewed by Shagufta Naaz
“Even the worst marriage is better than being divorced,” “a child from a broken home is scarred for life...” and many such ‘words of wisdom’ often rain down on women who think about walking out of difficult, even abusive marriages.
For a man, ending a marriage is easier. And if he doesn’t want to do even that, he has the option of remarrying and moving on with his life without bothering with a divorce. A woman, however, cannot move on as long as she is married; the fear of losing custody of her children is just one of the threats that dangle over her head. Since child support and alimony are abstract concepts rather than facts in Pakistan, many women fear being left destitute if they dare walk out on their husbands.
And even when a woman decides to go ahead with divorce, friends and family will often scare her with accounts of never-ending court cases; self-professed clerics will assure her that her husband can claim custody of their children and her in-laws will refuse to return the dowry. To counter this misinformation, one wishes we had a local equivalent of the recently-published Indian book, Breaking Up: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Divorced by Mrunalini Deshmukh and Fazaa Shroff-Garg.
Deshmukh, a divorce lawyer with almost 20 years’ experience, and her associate Shroff-Garg are the perfect duo to put together the definitive handbook on this subject. Starting with an understanding of divorce and its types (mutual versus contested) the book takes you through the divorce laws for each of the major religious communities in India. You may be surprised to find that there are nine types of divorce in Islam (but this is not the rule for all Islamic schools of thought); there are also several circumstances (such as the failure of husband to provide maintenance for two years) that allow a woman to seek a divorce, something every woman should know.
Divorce 101 also provides a checklist of what to do before filing for divorce — gathering details of one’s finances to be able to judge how much alimony to demand (or pay, as the case may be). In case of physical abuse the book suggests gathering medical evidence, photographs, etc. to present in court. In addition, it provides detailed lists of documents needed for marriage registration, alimony/maintenance negotiations, custody battles, and so on.
It is interesting to note that mental cruelty includes constant nagging and harassment, one of the grounds for divorce. The chapter goes on to detail each aspect so you learn the difference between cruelty and domestic violence, the latter being a punishable crime in itself as well as grounds for divorce. Unfortunately, not all these grounds are applicable under Islamic law so a lot of this book is more of an academic exercise for most Pakistani readers than a practical guide — but enlightening, nevertheless.
Perhaps as lawyers, the authors were worried that a lay person would find the legal details confusing. Whatever the reason, each chapter (from grounds for divorce to custody battles and marriage to a non-resident, etc) is illustrated through a couple of case studies; the idea might have been to be helpful but the case studies are somewhat insipid and unnecessary as everything is already clearly explained. In the only mildly interesting one, a spouse surreptitiously records evidence of physical and mental cruelty — tips worth noting down.
Putting together a guidebook on divorce in a country where people practice many different faiths is a daunting task in itself. Considering the level of meticulous detail that Deshmukh and Shroff-Garg have delivered, it is really a commendable achievement. Perhaps someday we too will be able to discuss this sensitive subject objectively and without prejudice.
The reviewer is a Dawn staffer
Breaking Up: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Divorced
By Mrunalini Deshmukh and
Penguin Books, India