By Rafia Zakaria
23 September 2015
IN many parts of the world, controversies are afoot regarding how and via what procedures a Muslim couple can divorce. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the debate taking place in India over the issues of oral talaq and whether or not it counts as a lawful divorce. Since then, news has emerged from Malaysia regarding the use of the same oral talaq rule. News reports emerged last week that political leaders of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) are being told that they will have to divorce their wives were they to switch allegiance from the PAS to any other political party.
If that sounds bizarre, it is. The oath was introduced in 2004, when the PAS was embroiled in an electoral battle for the Malaysian Muslim state of Kelantan. In an effort to ensure that it won outright, members of the party were asked to pronounce two talaqs to their wives. They then swore an oath that they would invoke the third talaq were they to change political parties ahead of the general elections.
Whether or not this tactic was at the root of things, the PAS won the election in Kelantan province in 2004, solidifying its power base in the province. The news that such a practice was in use at all was kept under wraps until former PAS vice-president Dato’ Dr Hasan Ali made it public years later. More recently, political events in Malaysia have once again drawn attention to the practice.
The PAS’s problematic use of faith in a bid to maintain political power seems easy to condemn.
The Pakatan Rakyat, the political coalition that included the PAS and the People’s Justice Party, has dissolved, leaving the former at a loose end as to how to ensure an electoral victory in the upcoming elections. Afraid, once again, that party leaders may defect to other parties that have better chances, the PAS seems to have returned to the divorce oath. If party leaders are true to the oath they took, then they are required to pronounce the third oral talaq if they choose to leave the party. Defection may result in better chances in the next elections, but it would also result in the loss of a wife.
The cost of leaving the PAS and endangering its control over Kelantan is hence increased, all of it imagined as a deterrent against defections, particularly since at least one PAS leader, Dr Hatta Ramli, has deserted the PAS for the newly formed Parti Amanah Negara.
The problem is obvious. The tying in of an oral divorce to one’s wife and political allegiance immediately assumes that the women involved in these unions are silent partners, basically property whose loss would add to the cost of defecting from the PAS. According to at least one analyst writing in the newspaper The Malaysian Insider, Malaysian women — who form a majority of voters in the country — are likely to vote against the PAS because of its dubious tactics. Similarly, it is expected that Malaysia’s Chinese minority is also unlikely to be drawn to a party that espouses such a perspective.
Amid the melee of voices, some Malaysian Muslim leaders have drawn attention to how the practice contravenes best practices within the faith.
Whether or not their pronouncements are going to have any effect at all on the PAS practice (which allegedly continues) remains to be seen.
Looking in from the outside, the PAS’s problematic use of faith in a bid to maintain political power seems easy to condemn. The fact that it is an institution, a political party per se, that is treating marriages as expendable adds enough unusual flavour to the usual stew of misogyny to be condemned outright.
Beyond these last-minute additions, however, the recipe should be one Pakistani men should be quite familiar with. While none of Pakistan’s Islamist parties have yet invoked such a practice, the taking and giving away of women to add or subtract costs from all sorts of unrelated transactions is a common practice in Pakistan.
A debt can be cancelled, a business funded or a property dispute solved by either arranging a marriage or threatening divorce in much the same manner.
Exchange marriages (watta satta) similarly envisage this risk and try to equalise threats. All of this amounts cumulatively to the same premise: factors far beyond an existing marital relationship can become factors in the grant of a divorce.
The actions of the PAS in Malaysia, then, represent only an extension of the logic operative in Pakistan. Instead of a tribe or a family or a clan requiring the giving up of women in order to punish a family, a political party is mandating the same for the same reason. As is the case of scores of arranged marriages in Pakistan, the women are left entirely voiceless in the procedure.
While there has been some talk at the level of the Council of Islamic Ideology to terminate the permissibility of oral talaq pronounced thrice in one go, no legislative measures have yet been taken to ensure that such threat of instant divorce, orally or via SMS, are prohibited in the country. While such a prohibition will not eliminate the possibility of women becoming scapegoats in marital relationships, it can at least remove the threat of a whimsical, spur-of-the-moment divorce, the dangling of a woman’s future on the utterance of a single word.
Pakistan already has legislation that mandates the legal procedures for a divorce; their value and pertinence, however, have regularly been put into question in the cumulative institutional failure to address whether a pronouncement of oral divorce is still deemed valid.
It is no coincidence that the PAS, an Islamist party, is using oral divorce, a practice that has in recent decades become the basis of accentuating the gender imbalance in Muslim marriages. Like Islamist parties elsewhere, it seems to be making an explicit promise to its adherents: if they are elected, religion will continue to be interpreted in a way that elevates men and devalues women.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.