DETROIT — Recalling the day her Islamic divorce was finalized, Olivia says she was ecstatic.
"It was almost like having a noose around your neck, and (I was) just relieved that somebody doesn’t have that power over you, and you’re out of such a hostile situation," she said.
Olivia, who asked not to be identified by her real name, separated from her husband after six years of marriage and divorced him in civil court, but when he refused to grant her a religious divorce, she traveled across the country for four years, meeting with imams in different cities asking for a divorce.
"I went to 10 imams," said the Dearborn, Mich., woman, showing off a permanent scar on her left palm from a glass cut from an altercation with her ex-husband.
Olivia shared stories of abuse with imams, including the time she was whacked in the head repeatedly with a key. "I had a concussion. He knocked me upside my head. You know those thick keys, like a Toyota key, the thick ones, he just bashed it into my head about 10 times," she said.
She eventually got a religious divorce, but not from an imam. Olivia’s husband finally agreed to divorce her, after he saw that she was serious about another man and was going to get married to him civilly, even if she didn’t get her religious divorce.
Olivia is now happily re-married and has been separated from her ex-husband for 13 years.
Many marriages are both a religious and a civil ceremony. And while a religious official in the United States can bring someone into both a civil and religious marriage, it's not so easy with a divorce. A civil divorce can only be initiated by the courts, which don't do anything about religious divorce.
In the Muslim community, a religious marriage is recognized with an Islamic marriage contract; therefore a divorce must be carried out by a religious institution and through a clergy members.
To many women, Islamic divorce can be more important than a civil divorce. It allows them to feel divorced in the eyes of God, seen as a religious obligation.
Even non-religious women may need an Islamic divorce to update their marital status in predominantly Muslim countries, which might follow the religious verdict. A woman, if she wants to get remarried and register her new marriage in a largely Islamic country, needs to be religiously divorced.
Not all women have difficulty getting an Islamic divorce. Of course, religious divorce is also an issue outside the Muslim community.
But Olivia’s story is not unique. Muslim women whose husbands refuse to divorce them religiously have one alternative: They must find an imam to grant them a religious divorce. The process, which can take years and involve traveling to meet with imams across the country, is what author Julie McFarlane calls "imam shopping."
McFarlane is a professor of law at the University of Ontario and says she receives emails from across the country from Muslim women who experience difficulty getting an Islamic divorce. "I tell them to go imam shopping," McFarlane said.
Shopping around for a divorce
When an Islamic woman wants a religious divorce, she typically can’t get one unless her husband agrees to divorce her.
There’s a double standard, because when a man wants a religious divorce he doesn’t need the consent of his wife or an imam. If a husband won’t divorce his wife, imams have the authority to grant the woman a divorce anyway, but only if there’s good reason.
Under Islamic Law, imams can grant divorces for reasons such as alcohol addiction, gambling, drug abuse, impotence and homosexuality, among other factors.
Imam Ali S. Ali, Director of Muslim Family Services in Detroit, says there are two main reasons men won’t divorce their wives. The first is they want to punish the woman and get revenge. The second is the man’s pride. "She rejected him, and he feels ashamed. He feels rejected," Ali said.
The power of "Isma"
It is important to note that women wouldn’t experience any difficulty getting an Islamic divorce, if they exercised the powers granted to them under Islamic law. One such power is the woman’s right to uncontested divorce, known as the "Isma."
Before a Muslim woman is married, she can place a provision in her Islamic marriage contract, asking for the "Isma." Under it, she can initiate a divorce at any time, without the consent of her husband or the approval of an imam.
"It’s not the religion. It’s the culture," said Melinda, another woman who didn’t want to use her real name. "Muslim men are not allowed to lay a hand on a woman. They are supposed to treat her like a queen. It’s a very good religion, and the Holy Quran gives women a lot of rights. It says to treat women good and with respect, but they don’t do that."
Melinda, who’s from Dearborn Heights, used the "Isma" when she remarried her ex-husband, because the first time they divorced, it was difficult to get an Islamic divorce, and she didn’t want to go through the process again.
But Women have to specifically ask for the "Isma."
"It’s not easy. The imams don’t give you a divorce right away, and you have to go and explain and, even if you have many reasons, they still want to give the guy, the man, the upper hand. If you go and say that my husband is hitting me. He mistreated me; they would say you have to be patient. They would say that’s not an excuse," she said.
According to Melinda, her husband was controlling, in addition to being physically and verbally abusive. She wasn’t allowed to wear pants, or eyeliner.
He promised he would change, but never did, and when she went to divorce him the second time around, she had no problems and didn’t need approval from an imam or her husband, because she had the "Isma."
"I told him many times I wanted a divorce, but the way some men treat women who are from other countries; they think that you are weak, that you can’t make decisions or go and find a life by yourself," Melinda, who’s from Lebanon said.
Melinda says if it weren’t for the "Isma," the second time around, she would still be married to him, because he would have never divorced her. "I wrote in the contract of the marriage that I can divorce him anytime I want," she said. But not all women are able to get the "Isma." It needs the approval of the husband, who must also sign the contract.
Mona Fadallah, a divorce attorney, who practices family law in Canton, Mich., says "Isma" is typically frowned upon and not accepted among very conservative families.
"This will not work in the situation where the families are more in control of the marriage. The more traditional families will not go for it," Fadallah said. "I feel like if you exercised it, there would be no Islamic divorce issues."
Melinda says, in the culture, "Isma" is viewed as shameful, and puts the man down.
The fix-it man
Muslim religious leaders take domestic violence seriously, but, as in other communities, religious leaders sometimes wait to see if the couple can work things out, because marriage is so sacred.
Imam Husham Al-Husainy of the Karbala Center in Dearborn says when couples come to him and other imams for a divorce, they try to reconcile them and purposely delay the process in hopes their differences can be resolved.
"I’m actually known as the fix-it man. I’m very specialized in fixing the marriages. The reason is, so many times people have come here wanting to get a divorce. I try to fix it, and it actually works in so many cases," he said.
"I never say no, because she might actually deserve a divorce. The file of the marriages is that big, and the file of the divorces is that little," he added, gesturing with his hands. "If she is beat up, or she gets hurt, of course she has the right to get out. If he’s hurting her physically, yes, she has the right to ask for a divorce."
Imam Ali says there is a process imams must follow when deciding whether to grant a woman her divorce, and all imams have different views on the issue.
"Without talking to the husband, they can’t do it," Imam Ali said.
He says in a situation where the husband doesn’t allow the Islamic divorce, they will get three imams, and they’ll listen to the woman’s complaints and talk to the man as well.
In some cases, women have come to Imam Ali asking for a divorce, because they married their husbands abroad and they couldn’t come here, or their husbands have been deported. There are other instances where the husband is in jail and the wife wants a divorce, or when he divorces her in civil court, but refuses to divorce her religiously.
Sometimes, when a woman wants a divorce, they can’t find the husband. There’s no number, and it’s hard to get a hold of family members or the imams who performed the marriage. In that case, Imam Ali says, he’ll at least give it a good six months before the woman is granted a divorce, to say they at least tried.
Al-Husainy says local imams meet almost weekly to exchange visions about pending divorce cases. "Some women go to different imams. I won’t divorce her, so she’ll go to the next one," he said.
Often, when a woman has been to several imams from her own religious sect, she will go to imams from a different religious sect, to see if they’ll divorce her. Women in the Sunni community will go to imams in the Shia community and vice versa. But that doesn’t mean they will have any better luck.
One woman came from New York to Muslim Family Services, asking Imam Ali to grant her an Islamic divorce, because she couldn’t get one for about three or four years. He wasn’t able to grant her a divorce, because she wasn’t from the same branch of Islam.
Ali says he had eight cases in March involving women experiencing trouble getting an Islamic divorce and three in May; a clear indication that the problem is prevalent.
Some Imams may side with a woman, but still not grant her a divorce, because they don’t want to be responsible for breaking up a family.
Al-Huseiny says the United States is too liberal and threatens the family values that are in place in Arab countries. "In the Middle East, the style of the family value is different than it is here," he said.
He says one of the most common reasons women want to get divorced is when they see all the freedom America has to offer. "Imams here think women in America are asking for more freedom, and that makes them want a divorce," Melinda said.
Melinda and Rita, another Muslim woman from metro-Detroit who’s not using her real name and had difficulty getting an Islamic divorce, say the imams here could be more strict than those in other countries, because the community is so close knit. "It’s a large community here, and people know each other. No one wants to get blamed," Rita said.
The question of money
Some of the women interviewed say many imams will not grant a divorce to a woman if she’s getting money from the husband while they’re separated. This could be a problem if the man easily lies and says he is giving the woman money.
While Olivia was trying to convince religious leaders to grant her divorce, she told them she had not received a penny from her former husband in years.
Melinda, Rita and Olivia say when men are powerful figures in the community, or are very wealthy, they can have influence over an imam’s decision of whether or not to grant a divorce.
"These days if the man is powerful and the sheik knows him, they won’t give you a divorce. They get scared. They would say, ‘Go to somebody else,’" Melinda said.
Olivia had that problem.
"He had a lot of powerful people behind him, so a lot of people here were afraid to go against him and then face the consequences," Olivia said. "You have the imams, who are in fear of doing something wrong, to grant you the divorce and then have to face the repercussions of that as well. It is almost like a dirty game. I can’t explain it, and it went on for so long that, in the end, I was so drained and so over this whole thing that I couldn’t even probably marry again."
Men can move on with their lives, but women can’t
Generally, Muslim men have nothing to lose by not getting a religious divorce, because under Islamic law, they can have up to four wives, so if a man is still religiously married to one woman, he can have three more Islamic marriages. Women can only marry one man under Islamic law, so when their husbands won’t divorce them, they can’t get religiously married again and move on with their lives.
Women fear to even date when they’re still married religiously, because their reputations could be tainted.
"You can’t be married. You can’t be with any other man, unless he divorces you," Rita said.
Of course, men need a civil divorce in the US if they want to marry someone else here.
"They go get the American divorce and leave this lady, who can’t do anything. They marry another woman," Melinda said.
Rita says this is something her husband considered doing to her, but she told him she would not divorce him civilly, unless he divorced her religiously. He initially refused to give her the religious divorce, although he wanted the civil divorce.
"If he doesn’t want to divorce me religiously, I don’t want the other divorce. You either take both, or I don’t want it," Rita said.
Melinda says if a Muslim woman went to some imams and told them she wanted a divorce because her husband married another woman, there’s a possibility they could say that isn’t a good reason to divorce, because a man has the right to have four wives.
"I’m a religious person, and I practice Islam, but my brain cannot handle seeing my man with another woman. No woman can accept it," she said.
Rita’s advice to women is to always make sure to get married civilly, in addition to Islamically, so that if they do decide to get divorced, they can pressure their husbands to grant them a religious divorce — by not consenting to divorce him civilly.
"Don’t just get married religiously. He could bring somebody back here and just get married again," Rita said.
Running around in circles
In 2010, Nadia Hamade turned to religious leaders, seeking an Islamic divorce, after separating from her ex-husband who refused to grant one.
Hamade experienced domestic violence in her marriage. Now, as an attorney with her own private practice in Livonia, Mich., she is active in helping other women who are victims of domestic violence.
Although she's had no physical contact with her ex-husband for more than three years, and no verbal contact for more than two years, Hamade continues to struggle to get an Islamic divorce.
At one point, Hamade was told over the phone by an imam that she was finally granted an Islamic divorce and could make arrangements to pick up the paperwork from the mosque. A few months went by before she had the opportunity to go to the mosque. By then, it was too late. The mosque told her it had no records of the divorce being granted, and the imam said he had no recollection of divorcing her.
For more than a year now, Hamade has tried working with the imam, but hasn’t had any luck. Her ex-husband is now denying ever agreeing to divorce her.
"I’ll call and talk to somebody and they’ll say, ‘I’ll get back to you,"’ she said.
Getting an imam to grant her divorce initially was challenging enough, and now she has to go through the whole process again. Over the past few months, Hamade has made multiple visits to the mosque to push for the divorce.
"I totally believe that this is a violation of women’s rights ... I believe that women have a right, when they have had enough, to request and to be granted, a divorce. A woman's request deserves special respect when there has been abuse and/or abandonment. Otherwise," she said, "it is unjust imprisonment."
The adultery threat
Some women will even threaten to commit adultery if an imam doesn’t grant them a divorce, because it means they have already broken the terms of the Islamic marriage contact.
"It’s too late to fix it, because she’s already committing adultery ... You see marriage is a contract, holy bond, and this woman has broken the contract, the holy bond," said Al-Husainy.
He is one of many imams who have met women who say they'll commit adultery if they're not granted an Islamic divorce.
But he won’t grant divorces to women who threaten to commit adultery. "In this case, I say too bad. You’re a sinner and let God go deal with you. Don’t threaten me. We can’t divorce a woman who’s threatening us," he said.
After the divorce
Women still find it very difficult to move on with their lives when a man won’t grant them a religious divorce. If they date or marry another man, without obtaining their Islamic divorce, their reputations will be smeared.
"If you date someone and you’re still married, they would say you deserve to go to hell and you’re a bad person," said Melinda. A lot of women don’t have the courage to ask for a divorce, because it goes against their tradition.
"People think that if you get a divorce, you did something wrong, but if you’re not happy with the life and the man you’re living with, then you don’t have to live this life. It’s a bad experience in the beginning, because you know how people start talking, but after it is good, and you don’t have that pressure that you used to have before," Rita said.
Melinda always kept the problems in her marriage to herself, because when she talked to her family about them, they would tell her that divorce was not an option and to stop considering it.
"They try to scare you and say people are going to talk about you. They put you under pressure. In the end I just said I’m not going to listen to anybody. I’m not happy. No one lives the way I live," she said.
This story was made possible by New America Media's Women Immigrants Fellowship.