About one in three marriages in Australia is likely to end in divorce. What often starts out as a private choice between a couple, may end up as a very public process. Friends, family, workplaces all get dragged into the aftermath as both sides grappled with grief, loss and starting again.
Filming of The Mosque Next Door, a three-part series about the Muslim community in Brisbane to air on SBS in November, began around the time I had just ended my marriage so I felt quite strongly about the experience of being involved. It brought up so many dormant emotions about my identity, my faith and what it meant to be a woman. I spoke to my parents a lot about participating in the upcoming documentary. Despite their reservations, they were supportive of my decision to let a film crew into my life.
I understand that to some people, it’s probably a bit weird to put yourself in front of a camera during the aftermath of a break-up. But I participated in the hope that I could reach out to women via the documentary, by sharing a chapter in my story with them. I don’t think I’m anyone special and I’m well-aware of my flaws, but I really care about creating connections and reaching out people.
I felt the questions of self-worth, identity and faith that I asked myself during my relationship breakdown and the circumstances I was in were nothing to be ashamed about. I am not the first, nor the last woman, to experience the end of a relationship. So I placed myself in front of a camera, and I spoke.
In the process of speaking, I started to find my voice again.
An Islamic marriage
In Muslim communities, marriage is significant. And across most of the cultural communities that practice Islam, dating before marriage isn’t really a thing.
I don’t want to ignore the diversity of the way in which relationships are conducted in Muslim communities, as the preference to date or not is also personal. However, dating that involves having a full relationship, including living together, before marriage often isn’t condoned. Within Muslim communities in Australia, many people might opt for an Islamic marriage to bridge the gap between “dating” and a legal marriage. An Islamic marriage involves a small religious ceremony, usually conducted by a sheikh. The purpose of it is to witness the union of a couple being publicly announced and accepted by family and friends.
...the circumstances I was in were nothing to be ashamed about. I am not the first, nor the last woman, to experience the end of a relationship.
This was also how I got married. Our thoughts at the time was that we could chuck a wedding when we got to a better financial place. Or perhaps ditch a wedding completely and go travelling!
But it didn’t work out that way. Why? Because life doesn’t always go to plan.
And I ask you, if I am not married legally by Australian law, am I still married? Perhaps not in the eyes of the law, but for me, it felt just as binding. Choosing an Islamic marriage was a step in strengthening a relationship with another person with the blessings of family and faith. There isn’t anything else to it really. Sometimes the Islamic marriage is conducted on the same day as the civil marriage, sometimes there is a long gap between the two events. Either way, it’s a commitment.
And I ask you, if I am not married legally by Australian law, am I still married?
What divorce means to me
The significance of divorce lies in the social weight we attribute to marriage. As humans, we all yearn to be loved, feel special and share a life with another human being(s). We celebrate marriage because we want to celebrate life. And we grieve over divorce, because we mourn the loss of a life we believed we had, and would have.
But when I think of Islamic marriage, I am reminded to consider that our ideas of marriage have only recently been about love. Across many historical communities, prior to our contemporary romantic ideas, marriage was viewed as it connected tribes, it was used as a tool of diplomacy, and was a contract of rights and obligations through which specific roles were understood in the framework of marriage. Often, marriages were crucial because they regulated survival by allocating, sharing and controlling resources for current, and future, generations.
I like the concept of the Islamic marriage because of the history it carries, though I don’t ignore contemporary challenges when it comes to negotiating marriage and relationships in communities that practice Islam.
Seventh-century Arabia was a difficult place for women. The rights conferred through Islam bought women up from being seen as property to be exchanged, to being recognised as full human beings with the right to ask for divorce, hold private property, receive alimony and keep their own earnings.
It is in this history of our faith, that the Islamic marriage (which is a contract of rights and obligations) was an invaluable step forward for women. Note: I say a step because it is not a point we should stop at — it is a point that we keep walking from, always ensuring that we are adapting our laws and social practices to uphold the rights of women.
Islam as a faith cannot be understood without placing it in its historical context, as well as seeking to understand what the intent and essence of the laws were. Laws need reviewing and updating in order to preserve their original intent and ensure that justice continues to be upheld. Laws governing marriage and divorce in Islam seek to preserve and protect the most vulnerable in our communities; women and children. The failure to do is not a failure of the faith, it is a failure of the people tasked with implementing the law.
After the dust settled on my post-divorce grief, I saw life had given me great opportunity. One door closes, and many more will open. I decided to it was time to take a break from my homeland of Australia, and experiment living in my other home - Egypt. And next January, I embark on another chapter by starting my Masters in Gender and Women’s studies at the American University of Cairo.
I am now in living Cairo, and the other day I was reflecting on a Quran verse that talks about how we are created to find partners so that we might take comfort in them, that love and mercy has been placed between the hearts of humans. I used the verse on my invitation cards, I thought it might be appreciated by my extended family who are not Muslim (my mother is a convert to Islam).
But now, that verse means so much more to me than being about marriage – it’s an advice on how to live. Because if marriage and divorce taught me anything, it showed me how much more strength we have when we choose to approach life with love and mercy.
What does it mean to be a Muslim in modern Australia? Ten Australian Muslims from diverse backgrounds move in to a house for eight days.
Through honest dialogue and passionate debate, the group reveals what it is to be an Australian Muslim today.
Muslims Like Us premieres on SBS and SBS On demand on 21 & 22 February at 8:30pm.