"HE wished her ‘Happy Birthday’, then he pronounced ‘I divorce you’! Can you imagine such cruelty, such heartlessness," said a friend whose 34-year-old daughter was unilaterally divorced last month by her husband of eight years.
She called me after reading the New Straits Times story (Sept 30) that revealed the disproportionately high divorce rate among Muslims (15,000) compared with Chinese and Indians (3,000).
A Muslim man’s unilateral right to divorce his wife at will is one of the causes of the higher rate of divorce among Muslims. The ease and impunity with which men pronounce divorce led the religious authorities to put a stop to this practice in the 1984 model Islamic Family Law adopted by the states in Malaysia.
Malaysia was then one of the first Muslim countries to provide for divorce to take place only in court. This was in accordance with the Quranic teachings urging husbands and wives "to live together on equitable terms or to separate in kindness".
But in 1994, because of objections from certain quarters, the law was amended to allow the registration of divorces outside the courts, thus defeating the original intent and spirit of the 1984 law reform.
Now, one only has to pay a minimal fine for breaking the law by pronouncing talaq (repudiation) without the court’s permission, and the divorce will be validated. Thus, this loophole in the law has led once again to the proliferation of such divorces.
So, the stories of irresponsible men pronouncing divorce at will and in all manner abound again. Many years ago, a friend’s husband wished her "Happy New Year" as the clock struck 12 and pronounced "I divorce you" in the next breath.
Another friend did not even know she was divorced until she received her divorce certificate in the mail from the Syariah Court.
Then, there is the recent phenomenon of SMS divorce which the courts, in all their wisdom, have recognised as a valid pronouncement of divorce.
At the Sisters in Islam legal clinic, we get emails and letters from perplexed women over the issue of ta’liq sepah, where their husbands pronounce conditional divorce for whatever reason they fancy.
These unregulated conditions include: The wife stepping out of the house, going to work, going on a business trip, picking up the phone when it rings, visiting friends or parents, speaking to a cousin he so dislikes, voting for an infidel political party, and so on.
The women felt that these conditions were unfair and untenable, so they picked up the phone when it rang, spoke to whoever they wanted, visited friends and parents, and in one case, the husband drove her to work even though he said jatuh talaq if she went to work that day. "What is my status, now? Am I divorced or not? But he is still having sex with me! Am I still his wife?"
Women’s groups have long raised the multitudes of problems and the devastating emotional pain a woman goes through when her marriage is terminated without her being consulted or given any power or opportunity to prevent it or negotiate the terms.
The calls for reform have included a return to the 1984 provision of divorce only in courts to increasing the fine and prison sentence as a deterrent against irresponsible husbands.
While some countries have made divorce more difficult in order to arrest rising divorce rates, others have put resources into marital research and education to deal with domestic instability and unhappiness before the marriage deteriorates or even before it starts. This is one area that the Malaysian government should seriously look into.
In the United States, government-funded research over 30 years has enabled experts to predict with almost 90 per cent accuracy which couples would end up in divorce.
The use of video cameras to record every facial expression, gesture and change of tone has enabled John Gottman, regarded as the guru in the field, to identify four key behavioural traits that are the strongest divorce predictors — contempt (indicated by eye-rolling when the other partner is speaking), criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling.
From this research, he came out with seven top suggestions to keep a marriage strong. The most striking I felt was his demand that we set high standards in a marriage. The most successful couples, he says, are those who, even as newlyweds, refuse to accept hurtful behaviour from one another. The lower the level of tolerance for bad behaviour in the beginning of a relationship, the happier the couple is down the road.
Another important tip Gottman gave is the ability to accept influence. A marriage succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife.
This, he says, is crucial because research shows women are already well-practised at accepting influence from men, and a true partnership only occurs when a husband can do so as well.
And yet in a kursus perkahwinan (the pre-marital course made mandatory for all Muslim couples) I went through, one of the listed characteristics of a good husband, who is the leader of the household, is a man who does not listen to his wife!
While Gottman’s model focuses on behaviour, other researchers developed written surveys on couples’ attitudes, backgrounds and behaviour styles.
One popular questionnaire taken by millions is called PREPARE which asks couples before they get married to answer 165 statements on a scale of one to five on a range of issues, including handling money, family roles, raising children, work and leisure, spiritual and religious beliefs, sex and affection, communication, conflict resolution, assertiveness and self-confidence.
Developed by social scientist David Olsen and his team at the University of Minnesota, this survey also claims 80-85 per cent accuracy on who would be happily married and who would divorce within three years. Olsen said he found couples who stayed happily married scored higher in such categories as realistic expectations, communication, conflict resolution and compatibility. The most common incompatibilities are communication, conflict resolution and money.
Thousands of churches and synagogues in the US and even county governments now adopt PREPARE or similar pre-marital inventory tests and post-counselling sessions before performing a marriage ceremony.
For over 10 years, the Islamic religious authorities here have introduced the mandatory kursus perkahwinan and churches too have introduced pre-marital counselling sessions. The objective is well meaning as the emotional, health, social and economic costs of marital conflict and divorce to families and the state is destructive.
This should give good reason for the government to seriously evaluate the effectiveness of these courses and invest in research-based marriage education.
In a kursus perkahwinan attended by my niece, not one, not two, but three ustaz within a span of eight hours told the young would-be grooms how they could break the law and take a second wife by crossing the border into Thailand.
One even passed his handphone number should the men need his help. Two male friends attended courses recently where the ustazah taught them how to beat their wives the Islamic way.
Take a towel, tie a knot at one end and beat her all over, except her face. If she is pregnant, you can beat her anywhere but her stomach!
Now, such advice cannot be the skills one should learn in a pre-marital course if the intent is to assist young couples in developing friendship, partnership and constructive conflict resolution skills in an intimate relationship where conflict is inevitable.