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Iraq marriages are a casualty of war

Times Staff Writer

For years, most of the solemn young couples who sought out Sayid Rafid Husseini were looking for a marriage certificate. Now, the robed cleric says, many who make their way to his office near a revered Shiite Muslim shrine want a divorce.

“I try to convince them not to do it,” Husseini says.

But times are hard. Waves of killing and displacement, not to mention sectarian pressures, have ripped families apart. And soaring unemployment is adding unbearable strain, turning what was once an almost unthinkable taboo into an increasingly common reality of Iraqi life.

The number of divorces granted annually by Iraqi courts has doubled since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003, from 20,649 that year to 41,536 in 2007, according to figures provided by the Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees the nation’s courts. But the real number is probably higher.

Instead of going to court, a growing number of Muslims content themselves with a separation according to Sharia, or Islamic law. For a Sunni man, that can be as simple as declaring his intent three times in front of two witnesses. For Shiites, it means persuading a neighborhood cleric such as Husseini to give them a certificate.

Iraq’s personal status law is based on Sharia, which frowns on divorce except under exceptional circumstances such as illness, sterility or abuse. Judges refer most couples to social workers, who try to help them patch up their differences.

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Anam Salman, a matronly woman wearing a head scarf, has been reuniting families at the west Baghdad civil affairs court for 26 years. She scolds and cajoles, teases and sympathizes with the tearful couples who come to her office.

“If we see any chance that they could reconcile, we push harder,” Salman said. “We tell them we need to do another session, and in between sessions, we call them. We use up all our money on phone cards.”

When the social workers are done, they send the report down a grimy hallway to Judge Abdullah Alousi, who holds court in a small office jammed with clerks and lawyers clutching files for his attention.

There was a time, Alousi says, when a divorce request was rare. But these days he processes almost as many separations as marriages.

“Based on my experience as a judge for the last quarter of a century, I think the main reason behind divorces is a lack of religion,” said Alousi, a balding man with a white mustache who is meticulously attired in a pinstripe suit and silk tie. “Under Islam, divorce is the very last option. This isn’t the case anymore.”

Conservative attitudes about marriage and divorce began to soften under Saddam Hussein, whose early years in power saw a modernization drive that brought more women into the workplace and guaranteed their right to an education. Women now initiate more than half of all divorces, despite the disapproval of a society that typically blames the wife for the breakup.

The violence and economic hardship of recent years has been especially hard on them. Most are brought up to expect their husbands to provide for them. But when sectarian gangs began targeting men of another sect, women were forced to go to work while their husbands stayed home.

It is an uncomfortable situation for both and has caused many divorces, cleric Husseini said.

At the height of the sectarian killings in 2006, extremist clerics issued religious edicts banning marriage between Shiites and Sunnis, which were enforced in certain neighborhoods at gunpoint.

When one young man told Alousi that he wanted to divorce his wife because she was of a different sect, the judge cleared the room. Isolated from their parents, the couple dissolved into tears and confessed that they still loved each other. But the man said he would be killed if he did not leave with a divorce. Alousi couldn’t refuse.

In other cases, couples tried to stay together, usually in a neighborhood dominated by the husband’s sect. But the wife was cut off from family and friends, which also put strain on the marriage.

“There were many cases where divorces occurred for sectarian reasons, but we tried to limit it,” Alousi said. “Now I think the situation has reversed, and we are seeing more mixed marriages again.”

Dahlia, a pretty brunet who wears knee-length skirts and fashionable boots, met her husband during her first year of college.

She was from a secular Sunni family that was prospering under Hussein. He was a member of the oppressed Shiite majority. But none of that seemed to matter in the first heady days of their romance. Ten months later, they were married.

Her father used his contacts to help find her husband a job at a state-owned car dealership, and they took over the second floor of his parents’ house.

But Hussein’s chaotic overthrow changed everything. Dahlia’s husband lost his post and began trying to ingratiate himself with the country’s new rulers, religious Shiites. Suddenly, she says, he would erupt into a rage when she left the house without wearing a head scarf or when she visited with friends who included men. She refused to defer to him.

Then she found out that he was secretly courting a wealthy neighbor. Islam allows men to take as many as four wives, but for Dahlia, “this was a stab to the heart.”

The day she finished her last exam, he asked for a separation. It took 11 months to finalize the divorce. She moved back to her parents’ house and found a broadcasting job. He married the neighbor.

“He is not a bad person,” said Dahlia, who, like many people interviewed, did not want her full name or that of her husband published. “But when the regime changed, he lost his position and his money, and this affected him greatly. . . . Of course, his new wife is Shiite.”

Almost every divorce has a financial element, social workers say. The cost of rent, food and fuel is always going up, and even the few who have jobs can’t keep up, causing constant bickering between spouses.

Shahad, the daughter of conservative Shiite parents, is convinced that her marriage would have lasted if her husband could have afforded a home for them. But even with a university degree, the only job he could find was in his father’s grocery store. So the couple moved into a tiny room off his parents’ living room.

“His family used to interfere in every little detail in our lives,” she said.

Shahad clashed constantly with her mother-in-law, and said her husband always took his mother’s side. Eventually, their disputes came to blows. But Shahad worried that a divorce would taint her and her daughter.

To her surprise, she has received four marriage proposals since she left her husband.

“People are getting over the stereotypes,” she said. If a woman comes from a good family and has sound morals and a decent salary, “these things attract men and they don’t care if she is divorced.”

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Usama Redha, Saif Rasheed and Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.


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