Sorry for keeping you waiting

Reflections on Rights and Divorce for Muslim Women

KMD shares her experience of learning about privileges and appreciating Islamic rights through her trial of an unfit marriage.

Earlier this year, I applied for and was permitted a divorce from my husband of (at the time) 13 months. The divorce was finalized in court – after mandatory counselling sessions – four months later. We had been having problems in our marriage from day one. I spent much of our honeymoon and the subsequent months crying, and can say honestly that while I made many mistakes, I tried everything that was within my emotional, spiritual and physical capacity to try to save the marriage. We spoke to intermediaries, checked in with counselors, I read everything I could get my hands on about our particular situation. Nothing worked.





Although I spent a lot of my short marriage heartbroken, the situation made me incredibly aware of and grateful for my own privilege, and how while so much of that privilege was particular and individual, a great portion of that privilege arose from the just fulfilment of the rights that Islam gives me as a woman. These are the rights I came to recognize over the course of my ordeal:





1. The Right to Knowledge

I live in a country where education is free; I live in a country which insists on the equitable rights of men and women; in which one of the first hadiths I was taught as a teenager in school was that “Seeking knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim.” (Tirmidhi) In retrospect, this is a fantastic hadith to start school with!




My parents educated me to the best of their abilities; my government supported this with scholarships from high school all the way up to postgraduate study. I have never faced problems with access to knowledge – on the contrary, I have been encouraged every step of the way, and I am so grateful.





It was because of this that I knew all my rights as a wife, and knew when those rights were being violated. It was because of this that I knew my right to request divorce, my rights during the divorce proceedings, my rights after. Knowledge empowered me, and the fact that my right to knowledge, to be educated as a woman, has been fulfilled throughout my life is something I am grateful for every day.





In a very real way, knowledge set me free.




2. The Right to Work (and the right to be supported)

Although there are conditions as to its permissibility – nature of the work, interaction with the opposite sex, modesty -Islam permits women to work outside of the home. Because of my job, I was financially independent before I met my ex-husband, during my marriage, and after. I am grateful that in making the decision to get a divorce, I was never once constrained by the challenge or prospect of being financially dependent on him.





Even if I had not had my own source of income, I had the privilege of knowing that my father would fulfill his duty and support me, as Islam enjoins on him as my closest male relative. While I enjoy having my own independent source of income, I always knew that my father would fulfill this duty, and I could make the decision to get a divorce without finances being a consideration.




3. The Rights of Friendship (of one Muslim on another)

This is a trickier thing to articulate. During the hardest times in my marriage, and particularly towards the end, I leaned on a few close friends, and they were there for me every single day. While some of these friends are not Muslim, the majority of them are. I kept this circle small, primarily because of the Islamic injunction to keep affairs between husband and wife private, limiting it only to friends who I genuinely felt would be able to offer practical, tangible insight and advice.





In this I drew upon the rights that one Muslim has upon another – the right to be given advice when asking for it, the love that I was given for the sake of Allah, the right to be reminded of permissible behavior when I was angry and sad, the right to be gently scolded when my tongue became unruly in my passion.





I was incredibly privileged to have a strong support network in making difficult decisions; while this support is not a “right”, per se, I was consistently comforted by my friends and family living out these two hadiths:



Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said: “The similitude of believers in regard to mutual love, affection, fellow-feeling is that of one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches, because of sleeplessness and fever.” (Muslim)





Anas relates that the Prophet (SAW) said: “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” (Bukhari and Muslim)





In a painful and lonely marriage, the love and support of my friends and family, and their reminders about Allah (SWT), gave me perspective and kept me going.





Rights and Privileges

During the divorce, a friend of mine said to me that a “right” is something crucial – it’s something necessary for people to live their best and most faithful lives. When a person’s rights are violated, it’s impossible for them to be their best selves. When Allah (SWT) has given us, in Islam, rights to something, it is because He knows what we as humans need from this dunya in order to be whole and good.





My ex-husband violated my rights during our marriage, and it broke me in many ways. I became a person I didn’t recognize and didn’t like; it was not until recently that I have begun to feel happy again, more myself. It also hurt him deeply to do these things, I think – when I am feeling my best self – I can understand that he came to the marriage with the best of intentions, and that many of his dreams, too, lie broken around him.





It is only sometimes that I can feel this way, with sympathy instead of raw, bruised anger. It is only sometimes, in other words, that I can be my best self. Sometimes I still blame myself, thinking a better person than me might have been able to feel this way during the marriage, mitigating the pain that we both had to endure. But then I remind myself that for all of my flaws, for all of my faults and mistakes, I was reacting to having my rights removed from me. When you wrong a person, you forfeit the right to be surprised when they begin to hate you. Perhaps a bigger, better person than I would have been more patient, more understanding. But the moment my basic rights were not fulfilled, was the moment that Allah (SWT) stood for me most.





A right is different from a privilege. A right is granted you by Allah (SWT); it is not for man to take it away.





It has taken the fulfillment of my rights – by my friends, my family, the court of law – to allow me to be my best self. Islam is a religion to be lived, not just preached. The laws enjoined by Islam have never been divorced from the flaws of human nature; they are laws not for perfect Muslims to obey, but to provide an environment in which Muslims can become as good as possible, as close to Allah as possible. Verses in the Qur’an were revealed in response to particular situations, to individual behavior, not to abstract situations and hypotheticals.





An example of this is the privilege of divorce. Divorce was not unheard of amongst the Companions, those closest to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), those who were best in behaviour.





The wife of Thabit ibn Qays came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and said, “O Messenger of Allah, I do not reproach Thabit ibn Qays in respect of character and religion, but I do not want to be guilty of showing anger to him.” (Her meaning was that although Thabit was a good man, she was unable to get along with him and thus might not be able to show him the respect due to a husband.) The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) asked her about what she had received from him. She replied, “A garden.” He asked, “Will you give him back his garden?” “Yes,” she said. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) then told Thabit, “Accept the garden and make one declaration of divorce.” (Bukhari)





Divorce is the perfect example of Allah (SWT)’s Mercy and the way that Islam is for humanity and not angels. We as humans make mistakes; we are drawn to certain people and become irrationally irritated by others. Our feelings should not dictate our actions, and we are not punished for the former, only the latter. There was nothing wrong with Thabit; but his wife could not reconcile herself to him. While Allah (SWT) hates divorce that is carried out for frivolous reasons, it remains permissible. There is acknowledgement in Islam that humans are not perfect, and that no one should be punished for another’s wrongs.





I wanted, very badly, to make my marriage work. I was unable to. Islam does not trap, it frees.





KMD reads and writes from Brunei Darussalam.





Rebuilding Yourself After Divorce