Divorce by Text Challenged by Sisters in Islam

Sisters in Islam

Last week defenders of Islamic law received a publicity blow when a Malaysian court evoked Sharia law to allow a man to divorce his wife by text message.Yes, text message. As in: "Am dvrcng u".

The decision was, quite rightly, condemned by women's rights groups in Malaysia, who say to condone such frivolity with Islamic law highlights the way it is inherently bias towards men and leaves women with the short end of the stick.
Under Sharia law, a man can divorce a woman simply by announcing his intentions. This is followed by a three month "cooling off" period before the divorce can be finalized, to create an opportunity for resolution.

However, if a woman wants a divorce, she must go before a court to seek a divorce, and she must prove her husband has an inadequacy - usually impotency or extended absence. If not, she has no right to divorce him.

Sharia law has its roots in the 7th century Koran, and in personal examples set by Prophet Mohammed. Islamists who see themselves defending the faith have ignored calls to change this legal system to reflect the improvement in women's status in the modern world, saying that God's word stands the test of time.

The irony of this text message ruling is that it subverts both liberals' desire for more modern interpretations of the Koran (you don't get much more modern in the Islamic world than divorce by text message) and Islamists' own goal to uphold the seriousness of marriage. The issue of text-messaged divorces has been a long-standing topic of debate among feminists and a new, tech-savvy generation of Islamists both here and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Many Islamic countries, including Malaysia have had long-standing amendments to family law, requiring divorces be brought before a court. But as in many countries, Sharia courts and their rulings have steadily encroached onto state legal systems.

Norhayati Kaprawi, a program director at Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian NGO, said this latest divorce ruling represents a worrying erosion of women's rights in her country, coinciding with the rise of an Islamist political party that won almost a third of the vote in recent parliamentary elections.

"Court rulings like this over text messages, and earlier ones facilitating polygamous marriages, send a pretty clear message to men that they can treat women disrespectfully and get away with it," said Kaprawi.

Dr Abdul Hamid Othman, the government's adviser on religious affairs, was quoted by the New Straits Times daily newspaper defending the text message approach as "another form of writing."

But for Karprawi and thousands of women like her, a text-message is belittling.

"Whilst many women and men court each by text message in Malaysia, ending a marriage requires a lot more careful deliberation than a few taps on a mobile phone."