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Pakistani women turn to once-taboo divorce to escape abuse

Maryam Suheyl, a marriage and family therapist, meets her client to discuss marital issues at her office in Lahore December 26, 2012. Pakist
Maryam Suheyl, a marriage and family therapist, meets her client to discuss marital issues at her office in Lahore December 26, 2012. Pakist

By Aisha Chowdhry

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani women are slowly turning to divorce to escape abusive and loveless marriages, once taboo and still a dangerous option in this strict Muslim nation even as more women become empowered by rising employment and awareness of their rights.

But the number of women with the courage to seek divorce remains small in the face of Pakistan's powerful religious right and growing Islamic conservatism, and in a male-dominated nation where few champion women's rights.

Women are often killed while pursuing divorces, with some shot on the way home from court or in front of their lawyers.

In the capital Islamabad, home to 1.7 million people, 557 couples divorced in 2011, up from 208 in 2002, the Islamabad Arbitration Council said. The Pakistani government does not track a national divorce rate.

"If you are earning, the only thing you need from the guy is love and affection. If the guy is not even providing that, then you leave him," said 26-year-old divorcee Rabia, a reporter who left a loveless arranged marriage to a cheating husband.

Despite their small numbers, Rabia and other women like her are seen as a rising threat from Pakistan's conservative forces.

"The women have been given so-called freedom and liberty, which causes danger to themselves," Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan told Reuters.

There were at least 1,636 "honor killings" last year, said Pakistani rights group The Aurat Foundation. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that "dishonors" her family is sufficient to trigger an attack.

Pashtun singer Ghazala Javed became a statistic in June. A famous beauty, she married after fleeing Taliban threats. Then she discovered her new husband already had a wife. When she asked for a divorce, she and her father were shot dead.

FINANCIAL EMPOWERMENT

While women divorcing their husbands is widespread in the West, growing markedly in the 20th century in many developed nations, it is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan.

And while a divorce case in the Muslim family courts must be resolved within six months, civil divorce cases can drag on for years, making it even harder for tens of thousands of women from religious minorities to get a divorce.

In the commercial hub Karachi, lawyer Zeeshan Sharif said he receives several divorce enquiries a week but virtually none a decade ago.

Women seeking a divorce usually come from the upper and middle classes, he said. Lawyers' fees are at least $300, a year's wage for many of Pakistan's 180 million citizens. For poor housewives, hiring a lawyer is impossible.

Most Pakistanis think the higher divorce rate is linked to women's growing financial independence, a 2010 poll by The Gilani Foundation/Gallup Pakistan found.

The number of women with jobs grew from 5.69 million to 12.11 million over the past decade, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics said.

"Women are also making money now and they think if they have empowerment, they do not need to sacrifice as much," said Musfira Jamal, a senior member of the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami. "God does not like divorce ... (but) God has not given any right to any man to beat his wife or torture his family."

In 2012, clerics and a religious party demanded a review of a bill to outlaw domestic violence, saying it risked undermining "family values".

Western culture, not abuse, is why women seek divorces, said Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan.

Yet domestic violence was one of the most common reasons for divorce, said lawyer Aliya Malik. Around 90 percent of Pakistani women experienced domestic violence at least once, a 2011 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found.

DIVORCE STIGMA

If deciding to ask for a divorce is painful, getting it granted is agonizing. Muslim women in the subcontinent didn't get the legal right to ask for a divorce until the mid-1930s.

Even then, a bride had to opt in by checking a box on their marriage certificate. A law passed in 1961 finally let women seek divorce through civil courts if they could show their spouses were at fault, but cases can take years.

Human rights lawyer Hina Jilani says fear remains one of the strongest barriers. One of Jilani's clients seeking a divorce was shot dead in front of her by the young woman's mother.

The public stigma, risk of violence and trauma of shepherding a case through Pakistan's tangled justice system is so overwhelming most women never try.

Sadia Jabbar, a bubbly, dimpled 29-year-old TV executive, struggled with feelings of guilt and failure after she left her cheating husband.

"It was a really bad feeling, as if I had failed in the biggest decision of my life," she said.

The stigma of divorce also means women find it hard to remarry, and many feel it's easier to stay in an unhappy marriage than be alone. The difficulties multiply when children are involved.

Court-ordered child support payments to divorced mothers in Pakistan are rare and enforcement even rarer.

Fatima, a 31-year-old mother of two living in the eastern city of Lahore, endured seven years of severe beatings before divorcing her husband.

"He used to slap me, push me, pull my hair. After I had injured my backbone very badly, he slapped me while I was pregnant," she said. Reuters is withholding her real name for her protection.

She got her divorce but her ex-husband refused to pay child support. Unable to get a decent job, she remarried him so he would pay their children's school fees. Now she sleeps behind a locked door.

"He will not give maintenance if I am not living in the house," she said. "I don't want to leave (my children) alone here. They are at a very tender age. If I could have supported them, I would have left long ago."

Click http://www.trust.org/trustlaw/womens-rights/dangerpoll/ for a poll on the world's five most dangerous countries for women.

(Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar. Editing by Katharine Houreld and Michael Perry)

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