Pakistani Christians have faced more than a century of neglect through discriminatory British Christian Marriage and Divorce Laws which need legislative reforms to fit 21st Century challenges argues, Shahid Khan
Christian marriage is thought to be an eternal bond. However, the institution of marriage is buffeted with all kinds of demands in our modern world. The marriage vows declared together with host of your friends and family on your big wedding day can either turn out to be a joy or a pain. What happens next if you picked up a wrong person or circumstances led you against the brick wall?
The less liked road to divorce is always fraught with heartaches and regret. However, in some cultures the word ‘divorce’ is even frowned upon and regarded as a taboo and even more so in a Christian marriage which is originally meant to be a life-long bond.
I am not an advocate of divorce; however it is essential to highlight the legal implications which particularly Christian women face and make the sad reality of a failed marriage even more miserable. The current Pakistani justice system puts Christian women in chains rather than offering them a reasonable solution to get out of a failed marriage.
Last year, Federal Government of Pakistan proposed reforms of the old British Christian Marriage Law Act of 1872 and Divorce Act of 1869, which prove an endless albatross particularly for Christian women, locked in dead-end marriages with few legal rights to protect themselves and re-gain their so-called ‘societal prestige’ in an already conservative and patriarchal society.
Under Section 10 of the Christian Divorce Act, 1869, man can seek divorce on the grounds of adultery while a woman cannot seek divorce over adultery by her husband. The wife must provide evidence of adultery coupled with either bigamy, incest, sodomy, rape or bestiality, cruelty or must prove desertion for a period of two or more years. In a society where the man in the house is an ‘uncrowned prince’ while women already live in the shadows, it would be impossible for a woman to stand up against her husband. She either will subject to abuse and triviality or even be silenced forever on her disobedience.
On the other hand, the current law provides enough room for men to abuse divorce. Nine times out of ten men bring false accusation of adultery against their wives or ‘simply’ convert to Islam to disengage themselves from their Christian marriage vows. This gnawing legal gap which gives more ‘power’ to men over women needs to be addressed.
The Express Tribune Pakistan reported on 31 January that a Judge at Lahore High Court, Shahzada Mazhar, termed the 1869 Christian Divorce Act as ‘derogatory’ to women. He was hearing a petition from a Christian man, Ameen Masih, seeking divorce and contravention to the 146 year old Divorce Act. Mr Masih is demanding separation from his wife since he feels he cannot live with her anymore but for that he would have to declare her as ‘adulterer’. He does not want to brand his wife as someone she is not and hence the complexity of getting a divorce becomes more tortuous.
In addition to the legal neglect there is the negative cultural perception of divorce; in Pakistan, being a woman, Christian, and divorced resembles a treble-tragedy. Women, who are already marginalised with less legal protection, are left in a precarious situation which makes them a soft target for abuse, neglect, denial and all forms of violence. A divorce for a Christian woman is regarded an eternal shame and stigma and most time regarded by friends and family as an epitome of a fallen angel (sometimes without even a fault) while men walk away with the clean track record over laws which favour them the most. The right of self-determination is not given the current divorce system and it rather supports the culture of stigmatisation of women.
Both, Marriage Law and Divorce Act, being the legacy of the colonial times, have haunted numberless women affecting tens and thousands of Christian families across the country. Pakistan legal system seems stuck with the old laws forever while British legal system has evolved through the test of time.
In the British law, the dissolution of marriage was once a prerogative of men through an Act of Parliament, as an expensive route available for the rich and the royals. King Henry VIII was granted a divorce by Archbishop of Canterbury and Church retained the power to dissolve marriages.
Later in 1857 Matrimonial Clause Act allowed common man to divorce as well. Then, according to British Law women could divorce men if they could prove that a husband had been unfaithful with additional fault which included adultery, rape and incest. In 1923, a Private Member’s Bill was proposed which made the divorce procedure easier but it still had to be proved. Later in 1937, few more stipulations were added that allowed divorce including drunkenness, insanity and desertion. The most recent major change was made in 1969 when in case of only one spouse wanting a divorce couples would have to be living separately for two years or five years before a divorce was made possible. Divorces normally favour maintenance provided to the less wealthy spouse – usually the women.
The case of Ameen Masih in Lahore should set the tone for more legal rights to be provided to Christian women as well as men if they seek divorce. The current system demands the spouses to defame each other to extend that particularly women can never recover from. Further it leaves little to no chance to Christian women to liberate themselves from ‘abusive marriages’ and leaves them in an endless misery. The time is long overdue for an amendment of the current marriage and divorce laws.
Worldwide Church has taken many strides in the recent past to fit in our ever-changing world. The recent introduction of Reverend Libby Lane as a woman Bishop in Church of England has been hailed as a massive leap what it once was an impossible step. Church in Pakistan must stand up to protect the rights of women as well.
Pakistani Christian women have long held their ‘peace’ against the on-going abuse both at the hands of what they regard their family and the wider society, now is the time both for Church in Pakistan and State to provide justice and equality to Christian women who can live their respectful life both in the eyes of laws and in the society.
Speak now but never hold your peace
Shahid Khan is the Vice-Chiarperson of a Glasgow based human rights organisation, Global Minorities Alliance (www.globalminorities.co.uk) He can be found tweeting @Shahidshabaz