Humanity

The Stigma of Divorce

Published October 6, 2021

By Nailah Dean

Searching for love and marriage as a practicing Muslim woman in America is no easy task. Not only must women figure out where and how to find practicing Muslim men, but they must fit the unrealistic expectations of what some men (or their mothers) want. As a writer who focuses on learning about the experiences of the single Muslim woman seeking love and marriage, I’ve encountered one type of woman who has arguably the most painful experience: the divorcee.

The Shame

Although I’ve never been divorced myself, I do have a tiny taste of the effects of divorce in the Muslim community. I was thirteen years old when my parents got divorced. Not only was I burdened with the task of navigating the grief that comes with living in a split household, but I also encountered feelings of shame within the Muslim circles we frequented. I remember a few Sunday school peers telling me that my parents did something haram. The anxiety they caused me led me to beg God for my parents’ forgiveness, hoping that my increased prayers would somehow absolve our family of sin.

Unfortunately, the adults I encountered didn’t do much to alleviate my fears. In my conversations with the adults about school or about the youth program my dad conducted, my parents’ divorce was always the elephant in the room—known, but never fully acknowledged. As a teenager in Dallas where I spent my formative years, I came to understand, based on a hadith, that marriage is half of a Muslim’s deen. But I also came to the belief that divorce was an unspoken evil. As I got older, however, I learned that divorce, while discouraged and considered as a last resort, is permitted when marriages do not go according to plan and can no longer be fixed. Somehow though, even now, sixteen years later, divorce is perceived by Muslims in the U.S. as taboo, and the women that survive divorce and seek a new relationship are viewed as “dirty.”

A Cry for Help

Last month a woman messaged me on Instagram after having read an article I wrote about women over 25 years old having a harder time getting married. She is 36 years old, originally from Pakistan, but had spent her formative years in the U.S. She had been previously married for seven years and was now divorced for two years. In the last year, she worked her way through the usual pitfalls and indignities experienced by many Muslim women when using matrimonial apps, searching for a second chance at love and marriage, only to find scorn and rejection.

The men she met were always hyper-focused on the fact that she was “old” and no longer a virgin. Even though she lost her virginity lawfully, within marriage, the men always alluded to the fact that she was no longer “untouched,” and therefore less desirable. If the man was younger than her (in his twenties), he would speak to her in a sexual manner, insinuating that she should be more willing to transgress bounds because she was no longer a chaste woman. As for the older men, they took note of her age and made snide remarks about her decreasing fertility.

This was not the first time I’ve heard this story. Divorced women from different parts of the country have told me of the difficulties they face meeting prospective husbands. Women who have been married for even a short period of time are penalized. I’ve even heard stories about divorced men with children turning down divorced women. But why? The reasoning given usually has to do with age (they want more children) and virginity. Sometimes these men preface conversations with divorced women by saying, “I will only consider you as a second wife.”

What’s arguably worse is the treatment the women receive from other women. Because of the cultural baggage that is associated with divorce, sometimes community members and other married women cut off ties with divorcees. That might have to do with some fear that their own husbands will consider taking the new divorcee as a second wife. Or it might just have to deal with people not wanting to be involved in another person’s “messy divorce.”

Islamic Perspective on Divorce

There is a well-known hadith on divorce. Abdullah ibn Umar reported that Prophet Muhammad (s) said, “The most detestable of lawful things to Allah is divorce.” In a recent khutbah by Shaykh Yasir Qadi (https://youtu.be/VPyW3PFke-Q), he says divorce is generally understood to be makruh (disliked). So, although divorce is permissible, Muslims are taught to take all necessary precautions to prevent it and to utilize whatever resources are available for reconciliation before divorce is sought.

Towards the end of the khutbah, Shaykh Yasir is very clear in reminding his congregants that the stigma associated with divorcees—especially by men toward divorced women—is completely due to culture, and not a teaching of Islam. There are several examples of Islamic tradition that show us that Allah and the Prophet (s) never intended for the ummah to think or act with any discrimination toward divorcees.

The seerah contains stories of people who sought divorce and sought the guidance/approval of the Prophet (s). The wife of Thabit bin Qais came to the Prophet (s) and said, “O Allah’s Messenger (s), I do not blame Thabit for defects in his character or his religion, but I, being a Muslim, dislike to behave in un-Islamic manner.” On that Allah’s Messenger (s) said, “Will you give back the garden which your husband has given you [as a dowry gift]?” She said, “Yes.” Then the Prophet (s) said to Thabit, “O Thabit! Accept your garden and divorce her once” (Bukhari).

Respecting Older, Divorced, or Widowed Women

For evidence of the proper way to view older, divorced, or widowed women — with respect — we need not look any further than the marriage of the Prophet (s) to his beloved first wife, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid. Khadijah was married twice, and widowed twice, before she married the Prophet. During a time when the trend was to have multiple wives, the Prophet (s) chose to remain married only to Khadijah until her death. His love for her is well known, as is his loyalty and respect for her. Aisha narrated that the Prophet said, “She [Khadijah] believed in me when no one else did, she embraced Islam when people disbelieved me; and she helped and comforted me when there was no one to lend me a helping hand.” Ibn Abbas reported that the Messenger of Allah (s) said, “The best of women among the people of Paradise are Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, Fatimah bint Muhammad, Maryam bint ‘Imran, and ‘Asiyah bint Muzahim, the wife of Pharaoh.”

Thus, it is important to recount that one of the most beloved women in Islamic history was not a virgin when she married the Prophet (s); she was 40 years old when she proposed to the Prophet (s) who was only 25 years of age; and she already had children from her previous marriages.

Shaykh Yasir ends his khutbah on an uplifting note. He reminds us about the verse in Surah At-Talaq (the chapter titled “The Divorce”), sandwiched in between instructions on how to execute a divorce: “…And whoever puts his trust in Allah, then He is sufficient for him. Indeed, Allah will accomplish His purpose. Indeed, Allah has already set for everything a measure” (Qur’an 65:3). Shaykh Yasir said it is no accident that this verse appears in the discussion about divorce. He said Allah wants divorcees to feel comforted, that they should not give up hope. The end of a marriage doesn’t signify the end of one’s life, or their well-being, or potential for happiness. If one puts their tawakul (trust) in Allah, He will provide for that person, whether that provision comes in the form of a new marriage or in a new life’s purpose. There is a way out of the sadness that comes from that door closing. Another one will surely open.

Moving Past the Stigma

A woman’s value as a prospective wife has historically been tied to her virginity. Islam does teach both men and women to guard their chastity for the purposes of marriage. But just like a man, a woman is worthy of being a marriage partner after being divorced or widowed. In the sight of God, a woman’s worth is no less due to divorce. Muslims know that the highest value of a person is their righteousness. And the Prophet (s) said, “A woman may be married for four reasons: her wealth, her lineage, her beauty, or her religion. Choose the pious one…” (Bukhari and Muslim).

It’s important that we continue to discuss and destroy the stigma of divorce because it harms divorcees, it harms the children of divorced parents, and it harms the community by impairing solidarity and compassion. Those who really need to get out of a marriage find it hard to do so due to the negative perceptions of divorce, and so some women are choosing to stay in abusive relationships. I have encountered too many stories of women who have lingered too long in very unhealthy, dysfunctional, and harmful relationships because they were too scared to deal with the stigma of divorce. The fear of losing one’s social circle and not being able to get married again, especially if one wants or already has children, make women more hesitant to get out of a toxic marriage.

Divorce can feel like one is losing everything. A divorced woman, however, can put her trust in Allah SWT, feel gratitude for another chance at happiness, and forge ahead to make a life that is meaningful and with purpose, whether remarried or not. Divorce does not — must not — diminish in the eyes of other Muslims a man’s or a woman’s integrity or honor as a human being. If we really want to practice and abide by the teachings of our deen, we will use our voices to change perceptions and uplift the status of divorced women.

Nailah DeanAuthor Nailah Dean is a lawyer and creative writer based in California. She writes about the intersection of faith and love for young American Muslims. Follow her on Twitter @NailahDean & Instagram @Nailahdean28.

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