Examining Muslim Marriage and Divorce in North America

May 30, 2013

PULL QUOTES: Divorce rates among Muslims in North America have exceeded 30 percent, making it vital to realize the most common factors that prompt divorce and to equip community leaders to assist in times of marital crisis.

With so many people voicing opinions about Shariah law in North America and with so little research on the subject, Julie Macfarlane, a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and professor at the University of Windsor, set out more than four years ago to examine how North American Muslims are applying Shariah in their daily lives, particularly as it relates to marriage and divorce. Macfarlane’s study emerged with data recently published by ISPU and presented in her upcoming book "Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari'a Path in a Secular Society".

      “Understanding Trends in American Muslim Divorce and Marriage: A Discussion Guide for Families and Communities” is the first report released by ISPU and is a valuable tool directed at the Muslim community and community leaders. “Shari’a Law: Coming to a Courthouse Near You?: What Shari’a Really Means to American Muslims” followed and detailed how Muslims in North America actually apply Shari’ah in their daily lives,extinguishing some of the myths and fears circulating about Shariah. This article looks at key findings from both reports, as well as suggestions to better deal with the issues that were found.

A Discussion Guide for Families and Communities

      “Understanding Trends in American Muslim Divorce and Marriage” is based on the findings of a four-year empirical study of 212 North American Muslims, including imams, religious scholars, social workers, lawyers and divorced men and women from the U.S. and Canada. This “discussion guide” for families and communities encourages a reexamination of traditional attitudes and approaches toward marriage and divorce, an accommodation of the evolving roles of Muslim spouses, a look into the various factors involved in guiding couples to their decision, and suggestions for Muslims to cope with divorce in their communities.

      Divorce rates are reported to have exceeded 30 percent in the North American Muslim community, making it vital to realize the most common factors that prompt divorce and to equip community leaders to assist in times of marital crisis.

Nikah: A Negotiable Contract

      The nikah contract forms the basis of a Muslim marriage. The research found that, although 98 percent of the marriages in the study were contracted using a nikah, most individuals admitted to having paid little or no attention to its content. Many of the disputes that arose later in marriages may have been avoided had couples negotiated the clauses in their nikah beforehand. Women in particular would benefit in defining the conditions that would make it permissible for them to obtain a divorce, as the study found that they encountered much difficulty in gaining approval to bring problematic marriages to an end. Almost all participants in the study wished they had undergone premarital counseling to negotiate the terms of the nikah and avert conflicts.

Keeping Up with Cultural Shifts

      MacFarlane’s study finds the major source of conflict among married couples to be over changing gender roles and expectations. As women’s participation in the workplace increases, some husbands do not entertain the change, and upon marriage insist that their wives leave their jobs. Some men found it a challenge to reconcile their wives’ attitudes of independence together with their desire “to be taken care of” by the husband. In many cases, wives who worked outside the home were also expected to shoulder the majority of household chores. McFarlane suggests that community leaders also highlight how Islam is compatible with the empowerment of women (in education, in work, and in public life).

      Another instance of clash between values ensued in “transnational marriages,” where individuals raised in North America were married to a person from overseas, often a choice made by the parents. Such relationships faced the pressures of age differences, cultural upbringing and language barriers. The study found that often where such arranged marriages did not work out for an older sibling, parents allowed greater independence and choice for subsequent siblings in choosing their partners.

 A Divergence of Expectations

      In addition to adjusting to shifts in contemporary culture, there are certain areas where it is common to expect a divergence of opinion among spouses. Different views on religious practice were the main cause of divorce for one in four divorcees in the study.

      Some women reported a “double standard” in their husbands’ religious approach, where husbands would prohibit them from what they deemed un-Islamic, such as particular forms of public dress or communication with men at work, yet themselves would not conform to Islamic obligations such as prayer or abstinence from alcohol. Other women reported that they asked for husbands to share in household tasks or expressed their interest in continuing education and were told they were a “bad Muslim wife.”

      In the cases of cross-cultural marriages, difference in norms of communication and tolerance for conflict were found to be the major points of divergence among couples.

      One South Asian man described his distress in finding his American convert wife talking casually about divorce and engaging in heated arguments, saying, “to me, it was foreign to bring up divorce, and to yell so much.” 
     Other female converts expressed their grief in having husbands tell them that they were not “really” Muslims. In fact, such accusations aimed at the spouse’s religiosity sometimes sparked conflict resulting in emotional and spiritual abuse, at times ending up in divorce.

      According to those interviewed for the study, one in three failed marriages was due to domestic violence. McFarlane notes that this rate of domestic violence is in line with the general North American population, and attributes it to the “systemic patriarchy” present in all cultural communities.

 Revisiting Ideas about Divorce

      Almost all couples in the study made serious efforts to reconcile their relationships and only considered divorce as the last and final option. Individuals reported that the community’s stigma surrounding divorce also compelled them to prolong their difficult relationships. In one case, a woman reported being sent back to her abusive husband by her mother and sister who feared reactions from the community. Others were told by their imams to remain patient. Some reported that community tolerance of male violence made appealing for help extremely difficult.

      McFarlane notes that this stigma toward divorce is lessening in the Muslim community, but is still a barrier for women seeking divorce, recommending marriage counseling services and the removal of stigma for using such services.

 The Role of Imams and Muslim Professionals

      The study also details the experience of imams in dealing with cases of marriage and particularly with women seeking divorce. Interestingly, imams’ attitudes and approaches toward cases sometimes differed as a result of how sympathetic they were to women’s complaints, rather than allegiances toward a particular school of law.

      McFarlane indicates the emergence of regional panels of imams as an encouraging development, where clear policies and guidelines can be formulated to govern such matters. Establishing cooperative relationships between imams and lawyers to provide a complete range of services for divorcing couples, family crisis training for imams and use of professional counselors and social workers by mosques are recommended.

      Occasional issues arise in the settlements of disputes; both studies highlight the need for understanding the issues for not only the Muslim community but any professional involved in this type of legal dispute. For example, Macfarlane found that women trying to obtain payment of their promised mahr had difficulty in the court systems as the nikah is not legally enforceable in U.S. or Canada, and is often disregarded as a “contract for a religious purpose.”

Shariah a Private Matter

      In her second report released by ISPU, “Shari’a Law: Coming to a Courthouse Near You?: What Shari’a Really Means to American Muslims,” McFarlane details how Muslimsin North America actually apply Shariah in their daily lives. This is the first report that actually consults the Muslim community on the meaning of Shariah to their lives.  

      Those interviewed used religious marriage and divorce on top of, not in place of, civil law. Macfarlane found that none of the respondents suggested that the courts should directly apply Islamic law to Muslims or non-Muslims. She reported that the idea of forcing Shariah on anyone makes no sense to Muslims.

      Shariah is widely regarded as private, family traditions that are separate from the courts and the legal system. The vast majority of respondents in her study regarded Shariah and American law as fully compatible and were insistent that Muslims obey the law of the land. Macfarlane notes that “almost every respondent married and divorced ‘twice’: once in Islam, and once in the legal system.”

      Both reports offer unique research aimed at informing not only the Muslim community, but also to policymakers, the media and non-Muslims who want to learn about their neighbors. Macfarlane’s studies give these stakeholders important data to discuss critical issues openly and frankly.

The full reports are available on ISPU's website, www.ispu.org.

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