ISLAMABAD: Fatima*, a 31-year-old mother of two from Lahore, endured seven years of severe beatings before divorcing her husband.
“He used to slap me, push me, and pull my hair. After I had injured my backbone badly, he slapped me while I was pregnant,” she said. 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.”
Although a relatively painful and newer phenomenon, women across the country are slowly turning to divorce to escape abusive and loveless marriages, once taboo and still a dangerous option despite more women becoming 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 the country’s powerful religious right and growing conservatism. Women are often killed while pursuing divorces, with some shot on the way home from court or in front of their lawyers.
In Islamabad, home to some 1.7 million people, 557 couples divorced in 2011, up from 208 in 2002, the Islamabad Arbitration Council said. However, the 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 conservative forces.
“The women have been given so-called freedom and liberty, which causes danger to themselves,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters. There were at least 1,636 “honour killings” last year, said rights group The Aurat Foundation. Pashtun singer Ghazala Javed became a statistic in June. A famous beauty queen, she married after fleeing Taliban threats. Then she discovered her new husband who already had a wife. When she asked for a divorce, she and her father were shot dead.
In 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 citizens. For poor housewives, hiring a lawyer is impossible. Yet domestic violence was one of the most common reasons for divorce, said lawyer Aliya Malik.