Divorce Is a Right

By Sukayna Moosavi

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You have the right to not remain silent. You have the right to a divorce. Divorce is a right that you have.

In typical south-Asian style, divorce comes with its own unspoken set of rules:

1. You do not get divorced.

2. In the instance that you do get divorced, you do not talk about it.

3. If you do talk about it, you certainly do not do so in a public space such as, for example, say a blog post.

That being said, this is not a post bashing my culture. The south-Asian culture is a collectivist one, in which family is at the core. It is no surprise then that there is so much fixation on maintaining these bonds and saving face in society. However, no matter our cultural background, society everywhere serves as somewhat of a covert mechanism from which we either knowingly or subconsciously derive our expectations. We will always care about what society thinks and that is why, more often than not, we ensure its silence about us by silencing ourselves.

Perhaps this is what has led to the idea that there is nobility in suffering. We collectivist cultures suffer in silence and call it endurance and resilience. We downplay the problems in our spousal relationships and call it “keeping the family together”. And these are all very noble notions indeed. However, being together and being happy together are not mutually exclusive concepts. After all, one can only give what one receives and if all an individual is getting out of a relationship is unhappiness, it is difficult not to unconsciously project that onto their other relationships.

So who’s to blame?

Like most problems in life, we as rational beings of course, are always trying to find the root of the problem (i.e. We like to play the blame game). However, social concepts simply do not operate that way. These mores are so deeply ingrained into our societies that they can be traced back to ancient history itself.

This is probably the part in your readings that you pause to roll your eyes at the dramatically over-used cliché. However, in this instance, I use the phrase quite literally. In order to demonstrate how intricately woven our ideals about suffering are, I am going to quickly examine an event from an ancient Hindu text, the Mahabharat. The Mahabharat is one of the oldest and most tragic Hindu epic poems ever compiled. For perspective, it can be likened to Homer’s Iliad in terms of popularity and anciency—except that it is eight times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. The main theme that the Mahabharat centers around is the concept of dharma, or duty to do the right thing in a given situation.

Therefore, throughout the epic, the characters find themselves at a crossroads in which they struggle to uphold dharma. One such character, Karan, seeks out to find a martial guru in order to learn archery. After being turned away by the royal teacher due to his lower caste, he begs the renowned sage, Parashurama, to teach him. The catch is, Parashurama detests the kshatriyas (warriors) caste and Karan who is adopted, either known to him or unbeknown (opinions differ) by birth is a Kshatriya. Either way, Karan claims he is a Brahmin (a member of the priestly caste) and Parashurama agrees to impart his knowledge upon him. Karan is a dedicated pupil and surpassed even Parashurama himself in his knowledge.

Pleased with his pupil, one day Parashurama decides he wants to take an afternoon nap. Instead of bringing him some sort of a pillow, Karan, the ever-indebted student, offers his guru his own lap to rest his head upon. As the afternoon trickles by and Parashurama sleeps, Karan’s thigh is bitten by some sort of an insect (or scorpion, versions differ). Despite being in immense pain, Karan keeps silent as to not wake up his great guru. However, the wound is so deep that soon Karan’s blood begins to spill, thereby waking the sage. When Parashurama awakes, instead of being touched by Karan’s gesture he is outraged—only a Kshatriya can endure such suffering in silence. Angered and betrayed, Parashurama curses his once beloved disciple that the knowledge he so desperately and painstakingly learned, will fail him in a time where he will need it the most. This curse sets off a course of motion throughout the epic, coming to fulfillment at Karan’s most dire moment and eventually leading to his downfall.

This is just a long, spiraled way of saying that there is no greatness in suffering silently. The Mahabharat at the time it was compiled and even today still serves as a moral guideline for Hindu and Non-Hindus in India alike. In fact, it is considered the fifth veda, foundation texts that make up the tenets of faith and doctrines of living for the ideal Hindu. This showcases just how deeply rooted the issue of silent suffering is in the culture. The pain a divorce causes is immense, the aftershocks are even greater but it truly does get better. You playing small, minimizing your pain does nothing to alleviate your situation. Rather, like it was in the Mahabharat, the decision to silently endure essentially paves the way to one’s own undoing.

But then why the silence?

Perhaps the tightest gag binding this silence is quite simply that people do not feel autonomy over their own marriage. What I mean by that is many do not see divorce as a right—rather it is something that must be granted or earned. In fact, some countries have only “just” legalized divorce such as Malta in 2011 and Ireland in 1996, which in the grand scheme of things is recent.

It also does not help that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) treads very cautiously over the issue of divorce. Article 16, Section 1 states that,

“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality, or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.” Therefore, divorce is a right that you have.

 

The first thing to note here is that the word divorce is never actually used. Instead “dissolution” is the term used, almost in an attempt to soften the blow. In fact, it is argued that using the word divorce would send a signal to society that the United Nations approves of divorce at the same level they approve of marriage. Imagine the horror! Moreover, while marrying and having a family are a right, divorce or ‘dissolution’ is an equality issue.

What’s so wrong with that?

Well to put it in context: equalities (even though they should not be) are debated, rallied, and fought for —rights are inherent. In other words, everyone has the right to marry, no questions asked. But divorce? Well, we’ll have to see about that, but hey if we do end up granting you one, we think it should be 50-50 alright?

No doubt there have been many changes to make divorce easier to attain and we have seen the shift in the granting of unilateral no-fault divorces. This is a drastic change from before where the party seeking divorce had to provide evidence of the other party’s wrongdoing while simultaneously proving that they themselves did nothing to contribute to the breakdown of the marriage. Although this made it easier for couples who “got along” well enough, it failed to help couples who were actually in a mutually toxic relationship. Moreover, it gave way to many other issues such as expensive litigation and perjury. Unilateral no fault divorce was a way to stabilize this and at the same time finally gave individuals a sense of autonomy in their divorce.

Although this seemed to only fuel the fear of “endorsing” divorce, with divorce rates initially rising, it soon stabilized. In fact shortly after, economists from University of Pennsylvania, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, saw a 8-16% decrease in suicides committed by wives and a 30% decrease in domestic violence. Some may argue that this system does come with its own risks such as potentially leaving one side financially disadvantaged if they do not hold the main earning power. However, it also ups the stakes, giving the one who wants to leave bargaining power. Therefore this system, although not perfect, goes to show that when you give individuals back their own narrative the outcome has more to do with the people in the relationship rather than those arbitrarily looking in.

That’s great and all but what was the main point again?

I want to drive home the idea of speaking out because when you do, you give permission for great things to happen. No aspect of divorce is easy but when you give voice to your problems you allow it to exist as an external entity which gives you something tangible to fix. Internalizing pain in a gesture of nobility is what encourages parties to regard divorce as something everyone has an equal right in rather than an equal right to. Legislature and policies are built on the backs of those who complain and yes, they come with their own set of fall backs. However, it also sets a baseline for change, which seems to be a step in the right direction—pun intended.