IT is astonishing but there are some women’s rights that are extensively protected in Pakistan through existing legal mechanisms. More surprisingly, some of them are practically implemented. One such right that enjoys proper legal protection is the right of a woman to dissolve her marriage. But then, one may ask, where does the problem lie? Why are vulnerable women still suffering in silence? One of the key bottlenecks is the disinformation mystifying these laws.
A woman’s right to divorce is protected under two, not one, different legal mechanisms: (i) dissolution of marriage on the basis of statutory grounds and (ii) dissolution of marriage on the basis of khula. The best possible way, of course, is to secure a delegated right to divorce in your nikahnama. It gives you exactly the same rights as a man to be able to legally initiate the divorce proceedings in a union council directly. The marriage can be dissolved with three notices to the union council in three months.
However, even if a woman does not have a delegated right to divorce, she can approach the family court of the district she resides in and file a case for either khula or dissolution on the basis of grounds. Acceptable grounds given under the law are both detailed and extensive — ranging from non-maintenance for two years to cruelty and abuse. For khula, a sole statement by the woman stating she no longer wants to live with her husband is sufficient for a decree of dissolution. However, through this form of dissolution, the wife has to let go a certain percentage of her mehr (dower). In case of dissolution of marriage on the basis of statutory grounds, the wife does not have to let go of any of her mehr.
It is shocking how often women don’t know their rights.
In both these instances, the court notifies the husband and proceeds with the case even if the husband or his legal counsel does not appear in court. The legal procedure also mandates the court to facilitate a compromise if possible by inquiring about the reasons leading up to this decision. However, it cannot force non-compromising parties to compromise.
The word of the woman is the final call in these matters. If she chooses not to reconcile with her husband, the court will issue a decree of dissolution which is submitted to the union council to initiate the three-month process for finalisation of the dissolution. It is ideal to secure a right of delegated divorce to save the six to eight months that court proceedings can generally take.
The important point here is that women are not dependent on men to end their marriage. It is their choice and theirs only whether to start, continue or to end a marriage.
In light of these facts, it is shocking how often women (of all socioeconomic backgrounds) don’t know these rights and do not understand that the courts actually work quite efficiently in implementing these laws — particularly in Punjab.
One of the key perpetrators for spreading disinformation is our entertainment industry — in particular the drama industry. A majority of women religiously watch the dramas that air on different channels. The dramas regularly show women being physically abused or being portrayed as home-wreckers but what has caught my attention of late is the regular portrayal of what women have to go through to end an abusive marriage.
They also perpetuate the impression that if a woman doesn’t secure the delegated right to divorce from her husband through her nikahnama, she doesn’t have the right to divorce and has to suffer in silence. Contrary to popular opinion, even if a woman doesn’t secure the delegated right to divorce from her husband through her nikahnama, she still has the legal right to file for a divorce.
As a human rights lawyer, I have personally seen this disinformation being absorbed by women belonging to all classes and types of backgrounds who come for legal advice after spending years suffering in abusive marriages assuming they had no way out. So let me say this clearly: women have the right to dissolve their marriage without any reason and legally, no one can stop them, neither the judge nor their husband.
One also wishes that the drama industry wakes up to the fact that they have a moral responsibility. What they are showing every day is being watched and absorbed by viewers who are predominantly women — and many among them are suffering. When we share all the harsh realities of our society through the scripts of our dramas, we should also aim to share the progress we have made through relentless efforts. Otherwise, it takes us back decades which isn’t helpful and doesn’t allow us to change the mindsets that have been there for a number of decades.
The writer is a lawyer and an associate at AGHS Legal Aid Cell in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2021