MUMBAI, India — Irrespective of class or caste, a fundamental aspect of Indian society remains: marriage is a must. Children are seen as giving women value, and uniting with a husband in order to produce those children is still often seen as the only option, say gender specialists.
And yet, as more women become better educated, financially secure and independently minded, their ideas and expectations as to what marriage should look like are changing.
While it is hard to make generalizations about a country as vast as India, “there is definitely a churning and a change that is taking place in the realm of marriage,” said journalist and columnist Kalpana Sharma who covers developmental issues and gender. “Women are not willing to put up with stuff that their mothers were willing to put up with.”
Women’s ideas and expectations are changing, often faster than Indian society can keep up, and an inevitable clash has arisen. As a result, more Indian couples are deciding to divorce.
The Indian government has responded to a rise in marital breakups and a backlog in court cases by proposing an amendment this month to make it easier to get divorced. In the past, couples have had to prove mutual consent, adultery or abuse. If, as expected, parliament approves this amendment to what is known as the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 and Special Marriage Act 1954, couples must only show “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage or "incompatibility."
It can currently take couples anywhere from six months to 20 years to obtain a divorce, Supreme Court advocate Kamini Jaiswal told AFP. There are 55,000 divorce cases pending in courts across the country, according to Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily, as reported in the local press.
Despite the rise in number, divorce continues to be rare in India as it carries with it tremendous social stigma against the couple and families involved. Experts say 11 in every 1,000 marriages in India end in divorce, whereas the rate in the United States is about 400 in every 1,000.
While the stigma of divorce appears to have decreased in some communities, the woman is still almost always blamed for the breakup, journalist Sharma said. “There's a feeling that the woman should 'adjust.' You have to adjust, which means basically you have to accept all kinds of crap,” she said.
Leena Joshi, the director of Apnalaya, an organization working with women and families in Mumbai’s slums, said the women she works with are more likely to put up with husbands who are abusive, adulterous or alcoholics than go through the public humiliation of getting divorced. “Divorce is the the the the the last resort,” she said.
Society is unsympathetic to single women, whether they are unmarried, divorced or widowed. In some communities, widows are not allowed to attend wedding ceremonies because it is believed they would bring bad luck.
“If married, [women] have more security, and society respects them,” Joshi said. When people meet a married woman, they think, “‘She’s married, she’s somebody’s property, so treat her respectfully.’”
There are also practical realities that make divorce for poor women close to impossible, Joshi said. The women likely have no place to go as they had been living with their in-laws, and their own parents are unlikely to support them if they disagreed with the divorce. There are also few homes or affordable housing options in Mumbai for single women, especially those with children.
“A lot of women stay in marriage because they have nowhere to go,” Joshi said.
Furthermore, while the change in the law will make it easier for those who married under Hindu or civil marriage law to get divorced, it will not impact women who had another type of marriage such as a Muslim one. For those women, it is almost impossible to get divorced, Joshi said.
Muslim personal law in India stipulates that there are nine grounds on which a woman can file for divorce, and those do not include “irretrievable breakdown.” In practice, most Muslim women in India have little option for divorce, according to Noor Jehan of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women’s Movement).
Men can divorce by reciting the talaq, which translates as “I divorce you,” three times. A Supreme Court judgment prohibits this type of oral, unilateral divorce without an accompanying arbitration. And yet, most of the Muslim community’s ulemas or clerics believe this to be a valid form of divorce, and the practice continues, Jehan said.
Afsha, 21, who asked to only be referred to by her first name, was working as a high school teacher while continuing her own studies when she married in December. Before marriage she told her husband and in-laws she would continue her education.
“They said I’d have the freedom to do everything and on that condition only I got married,” she said.
But after getting married, everything changed. Her husband does not allow her to work, get her master’s degree, leave home or visit her mother without his permission, she said. Her job is to cook, clean and produce babies.
“I cannot see any more future for myself,” she said while holding back tears. “My certificates are all in the cupboard.”
Afsha said she considers leaving her husband, but she cannot get divorced because in her community, the only option is for the man to say the talaq three times.
”There is no way, he has to say it,” she said softy. “I have to convince him to say that.”
For those married under Hindu or civil law, the ability to get divorced is likely to get much easier soon. The law will be on their side. Next hurdle: society.