Getting Muslim men to think twice about divorce

Law change encourages them to seek help for marital woes, prevents frivolous use of talak

Ms Eiliyah's former husband sprang a divorce on her in an "ambush" at an HDB void deck.

On the pretext of returning her a camera, he called her to come down from her parents' flat, where she had been living temporarily to avoid his emotional and physical abuse.

To her surprise, his father and best friend popped out from behind a pillar as he uttered talak - an Arabic word that means to release from or to divorce Ms Eiliyah (not her real name).

They were his witnesses for the divorce that he was seeking.

It is a form of marital dissolution initiated by a Muslim husband, who has the unilateral right to say talak without having to prove the grounds of divorce.

"He said my name and announced that he was divorcing me with one talak in front of the two men," she said of the 2014 incident.

It caught the marketing director off guard and continues to upset her till today, Ms Eiliyah, 30, told The Straits Times.

  • 1,667

    Number of Muslim divorces in 2015.

    1,702

    Number of Muslim divorces last year.

They were married for two years.

The word talak is customarily uttered to initiate a divorce.

Last month, Parliament amended the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) to include a clause saying men can apply for divorce without having to first say talak.

The change, however, does not ban the practice. It merely puts in place a statutory provision for what has been practised since 1968, when AMLA came into operation.

A Muslim man can still continue with the existing practice of uttering talak if he chooses to do so, a Syariah Court spokesman told The Straits Times. What the clause does is "to prevent frivolous pronouncements of talak for a quick and convenient solution to marital challenges", said the spokesman.

The change is also to encourage men to seek early help for their marital woes, the spokesman added. The court will then refer the couple to its Marriage Counselling Programme to try and save the marriage.

When asked why it was not made compulsory for men to apply for divorce only at the Syariah Court, the spokesman said AMLA recognises various grounds for divorce, one of which is the pronouncement of talak.

Not all Muslim men follow talak route

The decision not to stop the practice was questioned by the Association of Women for Action and Research. How would the amendment achieve its aim of stopping men taking the talak route when it does not penalise the frivolous pronouncement of talak outside of the Syariah Court, it asked.

The talak route, however, is not followed by all Muslim men.

Lawyer Halijah Mohamad pointed out that many have long been going to the Syariah Court to get a divorce.

Muslim divorce rates are relatively stable. The numbers rose slightly, from 1,667 in 2015 to 1,702 last year. The Statistics on Marriages and Divorces report does not reflect the breakdown of divorce by pronouncement of talak.

Experts said younger husbands tend to be more impulsive. Lawyer Rafidah Wahid said the bulk of her clients and their spouses who utter talak outside the courtroom are usually in their 20s and 30s, and do not understand the concept or severity of talak.

The Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), which runs a marriage counselling programme, said 20 to 30 per cent of its clients utter talak outside court.

  • Regret, remorse and reconciliation

    The Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP) offers a range of services, including couple therapy and counselling. The Syariah Court refers cases of divorce to it, so its pool of counsellors can try to help save marriages. Here are two recent talak cases they handled.

    1. During a heated argument last September, Ali pronounced the talak to divorce his wife of more than 20 years, Siti, who had chided him for not helping with their children. Infuriated by this utterance and feeling unappreciated, Siti was initially adamant on divorce.

    Following counselling sessions from October to December, she became agreeable to a reconciliation. During these sessions, she aired her frustrations in the relationship, while Ali was remorseful for using the word in anger.

    However, since three months had passed, the duo, who are in their 50s, are now required to remarry at the Registry of Muslim Marriages to reconcile their marriage.

    2. Saiful and Fatin's marriage was filled with tension following the birth of their first child in 2015. They have been married since 2014. Fatin's parents found out that Saiful had been physically abusive, and that Fatin had been supporting the family financially.

    Fatin's parents insisted that the couple separate. In a fit of anger, Saiful pronounced the talak.

    Following AMP counselling sessions and regular phone calls checking up on them from January to August last year, the couple, then in their mid-20s, slowly rebuilt their relationship and were advised to speak with their families.

But more than half of them will retract it. AMP helps about 400 couples who are referred to it each year by the Syariah Court.

Driver Saed Suib, 60, who said he is happily married, maintained that talak remains relevant "because it is stated in our religion". It should, however, be used only as a last resort, he added.

The issue of talak, in particular uttering the word thrice in one go in what is known as instant talak, has stirred controversy worldwide. Some countries such as India have banned it. There are no such provisions in the AMLA.

Instead, it is up to the Syariah Court to interpret the number of valid talaks. This would require the court to be convinced that the husband does not have the intention of ever reconciling with his wife, said Ms Halijah.

Prior to Islam, men in Arabia could say talak infinitely, noted Ms Halijah. The religion worked to limit the number of times a man can say talak to just three, on separate occasions. Saying it thrice comes with the condition the husband can never reconcile with his wife until after she marries another, consummates the marriage and then divorces the new husband.

This serves as a deterrent to men from saying it "willy-nilly", said Ms Halijah. She believes there are fewer opportunities for men to abuse triple talak in Singapore as the legal infrastructure protects the rights of wives, since assets will be divided and men must pay alimony on divorce.

But others argue that instant talak should be disallowed since it closes the door for possible reconciliation. Few, however, will step up to champion this, since a theological debate will likely erupt, they said.

The head of Malay studies at the National University of Singapore, Associate Professor Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman, said the Syariah Court has "adopted a very cautious stand".

She added: "It decides whether a man has a clear intention never to reconcile and if the utterance is clear. That is a good safeguard in the absence of complete removal."

A Muslim wife, too, has the right to divorce her husband, except that she has to go through another route and prove the grounds for divorce.

Correction note: This story has been edited to clarify that the Statistics on Marriages and Divorces report does not reflect the breakdown of divorce by pronouncement of talak. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'Getting Muslim men to think twice about divorce'. Print Edition | Subscribe