ABU DHABI — Farah wears her long black hair down and uncovered. Her nails are painted red. And she loves base jumping. She's also a divorcee — as of nine years ago. Her daughter was only 11 months old at the time. Farah herself was just 19. The marriage had lasted two years.
Farah exudes self-confidence and says she's open for a new relationship. She's the opposite of the clichéd image many still have of an Arab woman, of someone forced into marriage, oppressed and wearing a full hijab. Certainly there are still arranged marriages (not to be confused with forced marriages) in the Arab world. But far more often than in the past — and far more quickly — unhappy spouses in this part of the world now separate and divorce.
The divorce rate in Abu Dhabi, Farah's hometown, is the highest in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). When Farah got divorced in 2008, four out of every 10 marriages were dissolved (the same rate as in Germany). And in populous Egypt, approximately 40% of all marriages end within the first five years. A half-century ago, the rate was just 4%. The change has not gone unnoticed in politics, as evidenced by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's recent call for an increase of bureaucratic obstacles to divorce.
At this point, though, it's unlikely rules changes will have much effect on the trend, which is the product of overall shifts in society. Rana, a 27-year-old woman from Riyadh, says pressure on divorced women is finally decreasing. Even in her native Saudi Arabia, an ultra conservative country, nearly 30% of all marriages end in divorce.
A family affair
Farah's marriage was not a love match but something arranged for her by her parents. For such marriages, relatives function as brokers, checking and weighing the prospective husband's economic, psychological and physical attributes. Once the family approves, the prospective husband and wife then meet in a "salon," a seldom used, kitschy but splendid room, for a chance to get to know each other. Except they're not supposed to get too well acquainted — heaven forbid. That's why relatives poke their heads in at regular intervals to ask if the future spouses would like something to drink.
Never demonstrate any sign of weakness
Farah was a virgin prior to her marriage and had absolutely no notion of sex. Her parents never spoke to her about it. The schools don't offer sex education either. Instead they teach young women home economics. Just 17 at the time, Farah was delighted by her future husband. He was good-looking, mild-mannered, and had passed her family's rigorous background check. But she had little idea of how marriage works or what she should hope for.
Her husband didn't mind her pursuing a college education. But when she got pregnant, traditional role models surfaced and Farah realized that she didn't really know her husband. Her husband very rarely displayed any feelings, and Farah suffered from his repressed emotions. "I wanted a husband who could speak openly about his fears, worries and desires," she says.
Patriarchal societies also force men to take on a proscribed role, and one of the cardinal rules of that role is to never demonstrate any sign of weakness. All these repressed emotions led to recurring fights and eventually, Farah just couldn't take it any longer. She filed for divorce despite the fact that the timing was rather difficult. She had just become a mother, was finishing her degree in communication studies and had no money. On top of that, her father was sick. And yet she's never regretted taking the step.
Exercising her rights
Many women now do what Farah did, especially in the upper classes, where often women are the ones who demand a divorce, says Heba Kotb, a family and sex therapist in Egypt. Kotb studied first in Cairo and later in Florida, where she earned a doctorate. She had her own television show in Egypt from 2005 until 2014 called "Big Words" in which she answered questions about sex and relationships in general.
Shopping mall in Dubai — Photo: Jay Galvin
Regarding divorce, Kotb says there's a huge difference in the Arab world between rich and poor families. "The more educated the woman, the more demanding and the less dependent she is on her husband," the therapist explains. "Many women have told me, 'I don’t need a husband, quite the opposite in fact, he only holds me back.' But it's very different in poorer families where the husband often wants to shirk the financial responsibility, and simply disappears. The woman is then left alone with the children while her husband does not even file for divorce. So the wife remains married and cannot enter another marriage."
At first, Farah's family was unhappy that she filed for divorce. She had just become a mother after all. But she knew her rights. Even in Islamic countries, divorce is possible, although different rules apply to men and women. The man is able to dissolve the marriage much more easily by simply saying the words "you are divorced." A woman can dissolve the marriage through exercising the right of the divorce slogan ("khula" in Arabic) and uttering the same words, but only if the divorce is mutually agreed.
In Farah's case, her husband wouldn't agree to a mutual divorce. And so Farah decided to make use of "talaq" — special divorce rights for women — which allowed her to end the marriage but meant she'd give up her "bride gift." Bride gifts are something the groom presents his wife in the form of gold jewelry, an apartment or cash, depending on the couple's means.
For that, she had to relinquish her bride gift.
When Farah's parents realized just how set their daughter was on getting a divorce, they ended up supporting her. Kotb sees that kind of change of heart as another sign of the times. "Of course people want to avoid divorce, especially when there are children involved. But it isn't a societal taboo any longer," she explains.
Farah's ex-husband cried in court, saying he didn't want to let Farah go. For that reason, Farah had to relinquish her bride gift. “I was never interested in his money, anyway," she says. The divorce was effective after nine months of court proceedings. It was only that that Farah "finally felt free."
As a UAE citizen and a divorced woman, Farah received accommodation and financial aid from the state. Today, she has a management-level position in a state-owned company and is a single mother. Her daughter is nine. "I want my daughter to love herself first before she loves someone else," says Farah. "She shouldn't marry to feel complete. She should understand love as something wonderful but supplementary."
Farah does sometimes miss the feeling of being married. But not the fact that she was married to someone she barely knew. Still, she believes in the institution of marriage and would love to share her life with a man. "Nowadays, I am waiting to find true love," she says. "If it does come around, that'd be wonderful. But if it doesn't, it's still better to be single than to be just married on paper."