Equality in Separation and Divorce Laws

Can Muslim women divorce?

The Qur’an encourages an egalitarian nature in marriage and counsels compassion and tolerance within marriage and divorce. It forbids men to leave their wives without notice or from harming them at any time. Furthermore, the Qur’an encourages couples to reconcile their problems without violence, and, if the couple is still unhappy, they should depart on equal and peaceful terms. In pre-Islamic times, women had no rights in marriage, but, when the Qur’an decreed that a marriage is a contractual agreement, women’s position in society elevated. Instead of being perceived as property, women were recognized as consenting, independent individuals who had the same leverage in defining the terms of both marriage and divorce as men. As such, Muslims consider marriage a social contact that takes the legal equality of both spouses as integral to its existence.

Quranic Support

If they wish for peace, God will cause Their reconciliation”(4:35)
“When ye divorce women, and they fulfil the term of iddat [waiting period], either take them back on equitable terms or set them free on equitable terms; but do not take them back to injure them, or take undue advantage; if anyone does that, He wrongs his own soul” (2:231)
“If a woman fears ill-treatment from her husband, or desertion, it is no sin for them to be twain if they make terms of peace between themselves. Peace is better. But greed hath been made present in the minds (of men). If ye do good and keep from evil, lo! Allah is ever Informed of what ye do” (4:128)

Unfortunately, today, many laws in Muslim majority countries allow a husband to pronounce the words of divorce, talaq, as many as three times to his wife without giving notice, leaving her unsupported. The Qur’an strictly forbids this unjust practice of triple talaq. In pre-Islamic times, men divorced women, remarried them for financial or sexual reasons, and then divorced them again. Given this, the Qur’an limited the number of times men could divorce the same woman to two. Marrying the same woman the third time was rendered even more difficult: the woman must first be married to another man, divorce him, and then marry her former husband. 

Islam dictates that each time a woman remarries, her consent is required and she must be financially accommodated, otherwise the marriage is not permitted. This greatly reduced exploitation of women and granted her free will and independence in ancient Arabia.

Today, there have been several attempts by Muslim women to reform anachronistic divorce laws. Some countries impose financial penalties on a husband who divorces his wife without cause, and others state that the wife has to be present before a man can announce divorce. In Morocco and Tunisia couples are required to appear before a judge, and oral repudiation is not accepted to ensure that women’s rights are safeguarded. In March 2000, Egyptian law granted women the right to obtain divorce without her husband’s consent if she returned her mahr, or dowry. By the middle of the month, 3,000 petitions seeking divorce under these provisions were filed in Cairo alone. Strides are being made globally to advance and protect women’s rights that are inherently protected in Islam.

WISE's Position

At WISE, we believe that a marriage must entail a healthy and happy relationship between two consenting individuals. If couples cannot reconcile their problems, women have the right to separate from their husbands without harm. Moreover, men are not allowed to divorce women without warning and they are obligated to accommodate women they plan to divorce during and after the marriage.

WISE Women Active on the Issue

Shahina Akbar, Asifa Quraishi-Landes, Munira Lekovic Ezzeldine

WISE is authentic to the Islamic tradition.

Past approaches to empowering Muslim women typically employ a distinctly Western framework for understanding the problem, relying exclusively on measurements of economic status, educational level, health care or political participation. WISE approaches change from a holistic perspective that addresses the many interrelated factors that contribute to gender-based inequality and disempowerment.