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Given the current pace of socio-economic change in Pakistan, rising divorce rates in Islamabad, particularly divorces initiated by women, are likely to be indicative of similar trends in other parts of the country
Researchers argue that “divorce has become the common partner of marriage at the centre of the western marriage system for divorce, too has never been so widespread in the Western world as it has become in recent times”.
Here’s why: In the USA, it is now estimated that one-third of all first marriages are disrupted by divorce or separation within ten years. In the UK, it was estimated that some 132,000 couples got divorced in 2006. With overall divorce rates in the region of 12 per 1000 married couples, an interesting fact here was that more than two-thirds of these cases were filed by women.
Not only in UK but all over Europe, high divorce rates are associated with socio-demographic factors such as the timing and sequence of marriage and the economic status of couples. For instance, less educated and younger couples, who belong to the working class, and have a history of partnership breakdown are more likely to divorce.
A ‘tendency towards individualisation’, the ‘pursuit of happiness’, secularisation of the state and society, increased labour force participation of women, the ensuing female economic independence and even the feminist movement have been blamed.
The liberalisation of divorce law in Western Europe over the last thirty years has also been associated with a 20 percent increase in divorce and while divorce patterns vary across the West, even conservative, religious societies there have not been immune from this phenomenon.
However, it would be misleading to compare trends in marital dissolution in the West to divorce trends in other parts of the world. Certainly, divorce and other such family matters anywhere in the world are influenced by individual circumstances and intensely personal factors and cannot be simplistically correlated in aggregate analysis or situated within broad social trends.
While the Pakistani context is quite different in terms of diverse ‘family’ structures and the high numbers of lone parents and female headed households which characterise western countries today, nevertheless, Pakistani demographic trends also display rapid urbanisation, nuclear households, increasing literacy and labour force participation, a rise in overall age at the time of marriage and decreasing fertility — all of which have been correlated to divorce by demographers.
Marital dissolution also seems have become a topic of some speculation in the newspapers here, particularly the Urdu press. Some contributory factors identified by these papers — petty arguments, ‘egotistical issues’, low levels of literacy, early age at the time of marriage and frequent fracas with the mother-in-law — also lead to a somewhat reductive representation of women.
Others have identified a growing “awareness” among women, even speculating that “most (women) have the degrees and … the will, to earn their living. As wives they feel they can afford to take more risks with their marriages.”
Pakistan’s last census reveals that marital dissolution occurs mainly through widowhood; the number of divorced individuals seem insignificant to that of widows. Also divorce seems more visible in Punjab and Sindh.
Interestingly, despite its small size — its population in 1998 being 0.6 percent of the 133.2 million Pakistanis — Islamabad’s percentage of divorced individuals stood at 0.26 percent of its population in 1998. This is the second highest in the country after Punjab, the most thickly populated province where the numbers were 0.45 percent.
The censuses however are not an ideal source of data and due to the peculiar nature of what constitutes ‘marital dissolution’ in the Pakistani context, finding out the ‘real’ numbers becomes difficult.
“Only 10 percent of the divorce cases are available here; these are the ‘official’ cases registered by educated people”, according to Malik Mukhtar, an Arbitration Council official in Islamabad. The under-registration of divorce also results from customary practice; marital dissolution is traditionally an informal process and it is de facto, not de jure — divorce which is the norm in the case of male initiated divorce. Women are simply thrown out of their homes or packed off to their natal families, and men and women move on, at times remarrying old or new partners formally.
Islamabad’s case is particularly interesting. While small in terms of size, it is among the fastest growing cities in Pakistan due to internal migration. Hence one can speculate that divorcing parties may even prefer their cities of origin to register divorce.
The Islamabad Arbitration Council divorce registers indicate that the number of divorces is still very low despite a sharp rise in recent years. From just 98 cases in 1995, the total number of registered divorces rose threefold to 314 in 2005. Significantly, female initiated divorces rose from 19 in 1995 to 151 in 2005, from a fifth in 1995 to 48 percent in 2005.
Significantly, after 2002 when the Muslim Family Courts Amendment Ordinance (that a move for khulla be finalised if reconciliation fails and should be done so within six months), was effected, female initiated divorce rose by almost 50 percent the following year. Male divorces also rose by 40 percent.
Thus research for Islamabad suggests that divorce trends are related to a number of factors. However, whether these trends are directly associated with women’s empowerment, an exercise of their independent choice and agency, changing attitudes towards divorce or the changes in the legal and institutional environment which make it easier for women to successfully initiate divorce, are questions which remain to be answered.
Nevertheless, given the current pace of socio-economic change in Pakistan, rising divorce rates in Islamabad, particularly divorces initiated by women, are likely to be indicative of similar trends in other parts of the country.
—By Ayesha Shaukat
Ayesha Shaukat is based in Islamabad and works in a civil society organisation