Divorce is on the rise in Oman as more couples walk away from marriages. With support groups and religious leaders trying to save unions, Deeba Hasan looks at why love is hitting the rocks
Majid al Balushi*, a 24-year-old Omani man, is almost in tears as he narrates the story of his divorce to Y. “Only a few months back I was in the process of choosing a girl for myself because I wanted to get married. My sisters then came up with a girl who I thought was nice and we went ahead with the marriage. There was a big wedding ceremony with no expenses spared. Altogether, it cost me around RO16,000 including the mahr [dowry] amount.” Within months of his wedding, however, the marriage was falling apart and with it, Majid’s hopes of a life partner and family.
“From day one it felt like she didn’t love me and was just doing a duty by being with me. One day when I returned from my office, she demanded that I drop her at her parent’s place, which I did, and within days of that, she decided to divorce me.”
Now Majid has been saddled with debts from loans taken out to fund the wedding and the idea of having enough money to get married again is currently a distant dream. What happened to Majid is not an isolated incident, as the number of divorces in Oman continues to grow steadily. According to the latest statistics available, the number of divorce cases rose by 12 per cent between 2010 and 2013, when 3,550 couples divorced (3,409 of which were Omani).
Various theories as to the cause of disintegrating marriages have been suggested. Some see divorces as one of the disadvantages of modernisation and the rapid change in the Sultanate since 1970. Others point to the influence of the internet or the increase in women entering education and employment, leading to greater independence.
What is clear is that men and women seem less willing to work at their vows, than perhaps their parents and grandparents once were.
And as Majid’s story shows, men as well as women can suffer when marriages collapse.
“Divorce is especially increasing among the younger generation because they don’t understand the value of marriage,” says Sheikh Hilal al Rashdi from the Islamic Information Department at the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, in an interview with Y.
“To me, marriage is a holy and precious relation between man and woman, if the couples cannot realise this, then to them divorce is like the relationship between an employer and employee.”
The Sheikh also believes women’s increased financial independence is a factor.
In March last year, the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) revealed another interesting trend that may also shed some light on the rise in divorces.
Studies showed that increasing numbers of Omani women are choosing to marry in their late 20s and put childbirth on hold, with the number of women having children under the age of 25 declining. The NCSI has also discovered that more Omani women are enrolling in higher education and entering the workplace, making them emotionally and financially independent and more capable of leaving a marriage if they are unhappy.
“Because more women are now financially independent, they know that they can be on their own and do not need the man for their expenses. Someone told me the other day that his neighbour’s wife asked her husband for a divorce as soon as she got a job,” explains Sheikh al Rashdi.
Differing aspirations and backgrounds can also cause problems between couples, he claims. “Sometimes if the educational backgrounds and upbringing of the husband and wife is different, it can lead to a clash, at times resulting in a divorce.”
With marriage breakdowns often still stigmatised, the rise in divorces brings the need for support outside the family.
Sayyida Basma al Said, mental health counsellor, psychotherapist and owner of mental health wellness clinic, Whispers of Serenity, started divorce counselling sessions last year, offering help for the increasing numbers of women who are becoming divorcees. The sessions are being expanded; such has been the demand for them.
“We have started this group because we know that this is the need of the women today. They need to know that their life is not over with the divorce and that they are not alone,” says Sayyida Basma. “Women narrate their stories and support each other emotionally at these sessions. Because of high demand, we plan to hold these sessions at our clinic regularly.”
When Sayyida Basma launched the divorce sessions she asked Sayyida Mayya al Said, also a divorcee, to moderate the sessions. “I have been very open about my divorce and have mentioned it on my blog and made a video,” says Sayyida Mayya. “As a divorced woman, I wanted to share bits of my experience and help educate women that this is not the end of their lives.”
She adds: “Sadly, divorces are on the rise in Oman – when I hear that it always takes me by shock. It’s a sad thing to happen and I hope that as a community we can deal with it and minimise the divorce rate, because not only are the couples affected, it affects the whole family on both sides.”
Sayyida Mayya underwent a divorce two years back. Writing on her blog, Sew Chic & Unique, she, describes the intense emotions that a divorced women often goes through.
“As a divorced woman you go through a lot of negative emotions all at once,” she says. “You feel alone, depressed, hurt, angry, confused and doubtful. But with time after you have come to accept it, you discover a new side of you that you never knew existed. At least that is what happened to me.”
To gauge other people’s experiences and reactions to divorce, Sayyida Mayya posted a statement on her Instagram account in November last year for comment. “When a marriage ends in divorce it is a sad and painful experience for all involved. However it is harder for women especially in the Arab society.”
Some of the points raised included that when a marriage ends, many automatically blame the woman (without knowing the real issue). Additionally, society gives the responsibility of a successful marriage to the woman; if it ends then she must not have been a good wife. A divorced woman is seen as a shameful thing to be; once a woman is divorced
she carries the label divorcee or “mutalaqa” [Arabic word for divorced] until she gets married again.
Sayyida Mayya responded: “As shocking as those statements are, they are sadly true, but as many stated in the comments on Instagram, society is slowly changing their views.
“Divorce is a horrible thing to go through and kids are affected the most, since they are caught up in the middle of it. It is indeed an option to a couple going through problems, but it should be the last option and not the first option to solve a problem.
“We now have various marriage counsellors (I know of three in Oman) where you can seek help from. I have used all three of them, which is why I know they exist. Now, two years on, I have the opportunity to help other women who are divorced or thinking of getting
Despite taking two years to complete, Sayyida Mayya’s divorce ended amicably and the custody of the children is shared between her and their father. However, this is not always the case and when a marriage involves children, the question of who gets custody also needs to be considered.
“Though it may differ, in most cases a judge makes a decision on the custody of children. It so happens that if the father is the one in the wrong – either in his moral conduct or not being a good Muslim – the custody is given to the mother and if the mother is not acting right, the custody of the children is given to the father. However, when the child is under the age of eight, the custody is given to the mother and when they are over this age, they are given the right to choose if they want to stay with the father or mother,” explains Sheikh al Rashdi.
The Sheikh emphasises the bonding that in his view, a husband and wife need to have in order to have a fulfilling marriage. He believes that pre-marriage counselling sessions will benefit the younger generation.
Sheikh al Rashdi practices what he preaches and is an example of how to make a marriage work over the years.
The Sheikh has been married for almost 30 years now and has three children. He relates the story of a time when his wife was upset with him and spent a month with her mother and sisters. “She came back to me after one month and said she didn’t want a divorce from me because marriage is all about understanding the other person, even their flaws. We know no one is perfect.”
Sayyida Mayya also urges couples to work on their marriage and to think of divorce as the last resort, “There are so many other steps that you can take – couples can go to the Sheikh for marriage guidance or go to a place like Whispers of Serenity, which offer
“Divorce is not the end of a woman’s life. It’s not going to be easy, but it can be managed.”
A common myth is that, in Islam, a man can simply end his marriage by telling his wife: “I divorce thee” three times. In fact, he would still need to seek legal help to dissolve the union.
In Islam, the husband would also be given three chances to rethink divorce until the parting is complete. If the man decides he wants a divorce, the couple will then have a three-month window in which they can get back together. If they don’t, the divorce is considered absolute.
The same process is repeated for the second time. However, if the man calls for a divorce a third time it is immediately passed.
Should they later have second thoughts, it’s a complicated process. If the man and woman are officially divorced and want to get back together, the ex-wife has to get married to another man and if this second man dies or divorces the woman at any point, her former husband can go to the woman’s house and propose to her and then repeat the process of the marriage (with the mahr) again. This law exists in Islam as a lesson for divorce.
For a woman to divorce, the options are more limited. She can ask her husband for a divorce, but if he refuses, her only hope is to consult a Sheikh and ask him to act as mediator by speaking to the husband. Another alternative is to try the legal route by going through a lawyer.
# As explained to Deeba Hasan by Sheikh al Rashdi.
Asma*, a young woman from the interior of Oman had a traditional wedding. She had a romanticised image of how marriage would be, but it didn’t take long for the bubble to burst. On the first night after their marriage, her new husband went out with his friends and left her alone in the house. On their honeymoon, he went out alone again, leaving his new wife on her own once more. When Asma returned to Oman, she told her family that she wanted a divorce, but they discouraged her, considering that it was a shameful step to take. She had no option but to continue with the life she had chosen. She had two children with her husband and while he took care of them, he showed little love for her. After a while he told her that he loved another woman and was going to marry her. After that he totally ignored Asma and she asked for divorce. The husband threatened to take the children away from her, but finally agreed to divorce. Five years since the divorce was made final, the children remain with Asma.
Amira* from Muscat got engaged to a man who didn’t have much money. The husband paid a RO3,500 mahr, but it was Amira who paid for the wedding ceremony with some help from her family. After a few weeks, the husband explained that he had loved his cousin before they got married and that he now wanted to marry her and keep her as his second wife. He also mentioned a divorce. Amira confided in her sisters first, but eventually the rest of her family found out and her father intervened. When the divorce finally went through, the husband demanded that Amira gave some money back from the mahr. Amira had to suffer for the next four years to pay her ex-husband back.
*Names changed to protect privacy