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Breaking Taboos: When South Asian Women Choose Divorce

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It's 2007, a spring morning in May, and Samia Sheikh and her family are clustered around a small dining table in her suburban Toronto home. They're debating a single question: Should she get a divorce?

As she sits with five of her siblings, she knows staying calm is her only option.

She's scared but confident, because for the first time, the people pressuring her to stay in an emotionless and loveless marriage are finally there to hear her side.

She asks each one of them the same question: "Why should I go back?"

Her siblings, three brothers, one sister and a brother-in-law, remind her of her responsibilities as a wife and of honouring the family name. They're also in arranged marriages and each takes a stab at diagnosing her relationship.

Hours pass, and all of them try to convince her to change her mind.

All Sheikh does is politely answer back. She knows her siblings don’t have bad intentions; they just want her to stay married. She also knows she doesn't want to make a decision without them.

Sheikh finally tells her siblings her husband gives her nothing: no social life, no emotional connection and not even a cultural community as a Pakistani woman in Canada.

The family intervention lasts for 10 hours. By the end, Sheikh and her siblings have nothing more to say.

But this isn't the end. Sheikh's ordeal is followed by seven more months of pressure to stay with the man who had abandoned her, then begged for a second chance. Every day, Sheikh receives phone calls from family members, friends and even cab drivers her husband works with, urging her to take him back.

After 15 mostly unhappy years with her husband, she's ready for a divorce. Her South Asian family isn't willing to accept it. Sheikh won't budge.

***

Divorce in most South Asian communities, even those in more liberal North America, is still considered taboo. Many South Asians, like other traditional ethnic groups, stay in toxic marriages for the sake of finances, duty, children, fear or pride. Getting divorced seems impossible and often, couples stay together to avoid the label of a failed marriage.

Dhara Thakar, an assistant professor of human development at the Erikson Institute in Chicago says while in any family, divorce is a challenge, for South Asians in particular, there's pressure from family members to make the marriage work.

"Marriage is thought of as a rite of passage ... and the thought of divorce is extremely negative and something that’s contrary to what this culture is building towards,” she tells The Huffington Post Canada.

In an article for the South Asian Parent, Thakar says even though marriage is a popular conversation topic for South Asians, the idea of divorce is rarely discussed openly.

"There are so many assumptions made about it and our culture hasn't come up with a great dialogue for how to discuss it, what it means for the now and the future," Thakar says.

Still, a growing number of South Asian women in Canada are choosing to leave hopelessly unstable marriages dissolved by everything from incompatibility to domestic violence. From Hindu and Sikh Indians to Muslim Pakistanis, South Asians who have essentially been trapped by culture or family pressure are disrupting traditional roles of husbands and wives, and are choosing to take risks for the sake of their own happiness.

In 2011, 6.04 per cent of Canadians over 15 years of age were divorced, according to a National Household Survey by Statistics Canada. Among visible minorities, 4.36 per cent were divorced, while South Asian communities were at 2.4 per cent, one of the lowest rates. This voluntary survey gives a glimpse into how South Asians compare to the national average, because there are no available data on the exact numbers of divorced South Asians in Canada.

But while statistics say one thing, cases say another. Lawyers are not only seeing more South Asian couples seeking divorce, but the reasons these couples decide to separate are becoming more varied. Sumit Ahuja, an Indo-Canadian associate lawyer for the MacLean Law Group based in Surrey, B.C., says even though divorce rates in general are falling because common-law relationships are on the rise, in the East Indian community, for example, at least one in four marriages he sees ends in divorce.

Ahuja says the largest trend he sees in South Asian divorce is too much involvement of families. "In our culture, I think we have been socialized to believe that we give up if we get divorced, and it's our duty to stay in a relationship that is not good for us any longer," he says.

"It's a situation where the family is creating most of the conflict, and abuse seems to occur, either physical, mental or verbal."

south asian divorce

Sheikh first met the man she was arranged to marry at a campus library in Lahore, Pakistan in 1988.

To her, he was unremarkable — an average height and a bulky build. She, a 22-year-old math student, noticed his loose brown trousers and spotted a hole in his white shirt.

That day, Sheikh drank chai and chatted about school with her husband-to-be and two friends in the university's courtyard. She smiled to conceal her unease and awkwardness, but the shy man in front of her never made eye contact.

"Sometimes you have a sixth sense or bad gut feeling," Sheikh says. "Now I know 100 per cent of my gut feelings were accurate."

Sheikh's family was involved in her marriage from beginning to end, from the time her parents chose her husband to the family intervention with her siblings. She went back to her mother after that campus meet and told her she didn't really like him. She was an inexperienced dater and made excuses, saying he was "too short or too big" for her. Her family was never particularly strict, but Sheikh feared her eldest and most traditional brother. She was frightened by his anger and disapproval, and because the man she was supposed to marry was related to her brother's wife, she felt even more discouraged.

"I didn't want to tell my brother. I kept on crying because I didn't have the guts to do it," she says. "[My brother] said [my husband] had a good job and his family was good. I couldn't say no to him." Sheikh's brother was the most influential person in the family and made all the decisions.

So Sheikh agreed to the marriage, choosing to be optimistic, even though her gut continued to tell her otherwise. The pair was engaged for a year, but never communicated until the wedding day.

During the first year of marriage, the relationship was similar to other newlyweds: the couple went on trips, got along well enough and the relationship got physical. She questioned whether she was truly happy, but because she had no other choice, she continued pretending. Divorce never crossed her mind, because she knew marriage was for life.

 

In 1997, after seven years of marriage, Sheikh moved to Canada with her husband and their two young daughters for a new life. Leaving a job as a high school math teacher, Sheikh was forced to face the realities of being an immigrant, working any job she could to support her family.

"I landed on December 7 and started working the next day at a restaurant as a dishwasher," she recalls.

As is common in a typical South Asian household, Sheikh was responsible not only for bringing in an income, but she also had to do all the chores and cooking. After a few months in this country, she started noticing her husband coming home late from work and avoiding conversation.

Her husband had been a computer programmer in Lahore, but in Scarborough, Ont. he was a taxi driver. Unsatisfied with his own job and unable to upgrade his skill set, he barely interacted with her. He started coming home after 1 a.m., or would leave the house all day because they didn't have air conditioning. All Sheikh would do was wait.

Even after her long work days, her husband never helped around the house. "I would come home from work and my girls would be waiting for me on the stairs, hungry. They hadn't eaten anything and he would be sleeping upstairs."

south asian divorce

Sheikh told her family she didn't want to be with her husband. Although the couple rarely fought, her husband became verbally abusive and left Sheikh feeling powerless and over time, completely emotionless. Her family convinced her to try harder and to be happy.

When she questioned his absence or if he really loved her, her husband would call her jahil (ignorant) and indecent for starting a fight.

"Maybe he was frustrated with me. But I felt like he did enough to me that I was dead. I had no emotions at the end of the day," she says, tearing up.

Over the next two years, other parts of her life began to improve as her marriage crumbled. Sheikh got involved in the real estate business and for the first time, she felt comfortable with her own finances. She took over the core responsibility of paying for everything in the household and it made her husband uncomfortable.

Sheikh started to suspect her husband had come up with a scheme: he would leave her and have her continue to support their kids while he was absent and did nothing. He knew she was terrified of her brother, and they both knew — or thought — she wouldn't retaliate with a divorce.

In 2005, eight years after the family had come to Canada, a more confident and financially secure Sheikh took her two daughters to an office Christmas party in Niagara Falls. The next morning she received a call from her older brother.

As she had imagined, her husband had left.

"When I came back home, I was scared, but deep down I was super happy," she says with a smile. For the first time in her marriage, Sheikh saw things going her way and something like divorce seemed more and more possible.

Her husband kept his distance for the next few months as Sheikh continued to pay the bills. On Sept. 6, 2006, a date she vividly remembers, he taunted her with separation papers. At that point, Sheikh took control of her dead relationship. She filed the papers to a lawyer and did a little dance at home.

But the divorce papers had the reverse effect: For the next year and a half, her husband begged her to take him back.

After months of defending her decision to everyone around her, Sheikh decided give this man one more chance in 2007. There was one condition: he would have to support his children and her without living in the same house. She knew if her husband really wanted to patch up their marriage, he would do anything he could.

Her husband declined this offer. The couple got divorced in March 2008. Within a month, her ex-husband had another arranged marriage lined up.

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In countries like India, aspects of divorce are present in mainstream media in ways similar to western celebrity culture. For the country's film royalty — the celebrities in the world of Bollywood — several couples have split through both divorces and separations. Last fall, one high-end Indian jeweler made a progressive and arguably bold statement by featuring a dark-skinned South Asian mother getting remarried in an ad. While journalists and blogs applauded and celebrated the idea, the reality of splitting and remarrying is often much less tidy.

Even though there are no official records of divorce statistics in India, reports suggest it's mostly urban and younger couples with resources who are pursuing costly divorces. A 2012 New York Times article revealed that even though some statistics from India showed divorce to be on the rise, rates might have been even higher. The divorce process in India is often unfair to women, leaving them unable to finance a divorce or get very little compensation in return. The Globe and Mail notes men in India are also more likely to petition for divorce and when assets are divided, many women end up with nothing.

Some relationships never make it to divorce and are completely forbidden by families. In May, a pregnant woman in Lahore was stoned to death by her family for marrying a man she loved, and hundreds of women are murdered every year by so-called honour killings as punishments for alleged adultery or illicit sexual behaviour.

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A common belief about South Asian divorce is that women have little power and put up with mistreatment from their partners. Divorce lawyer Ahuja has observed, through his community work with women at risk, that even though women are bringing up divorce initially, some are still hesitant to open up about domestic issues.

"In our culture, unfortunately, a lot of people will go back to an abusive relationship because they don't want to be looked at as weak because they couldn't make their relationship work," he says.

Twenty-five-year-old Asha* knows this pattern too well. The nursing student fell in love with and married a South Asian Edmonton man who was verbally, mentally and physically abusive.

One morning in March 2012, her husband grabbed her left shoulder and forcefully pulled her in towards him. Asha was shoved to the ground, and her vision blurred.

"As I was on the floor, he actually kicked me in the stomach and his exact words were, 'Stop faking, bitch.'"

Asha managed to call 911 and woke up in a hospital bed. After doctors told her she had a concussion, her ex-husband, who was in the waiting room, asked the doctor if there was any way someone could fake such an injury. Even though doctors, along with Asha's own father, had a hunch it was domestic abuse, she still thought she could make it work.

Within months, Asha found the courage to pursue divorce. A trip back to see her family in Brampton, Ont. for the first time in months made her realize how much she had left behind. If this was the type of love waiting for her at home, divorce was the right answer.

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Couples who immigrate from South Asian countries often pass on their values to their children. But when it comes to marriage and divorce, generations can differ. Kuldip Gill, a counsellor who has been practicing in Surrey for more than 10 years, says divorce is now more common among South Asians, but it is the younger, Canadian-born generation who is getting divorced.

"Some couples who have immigrated here have a concept of, 'OK, our marriage didn't work but we will continue to try to have a relationship,'" she tells The Huffington Post Canada. "South Asians who have been raised in Canadian norms are getting the idea that perhaps dissolving the marriage is actually better for the whole family."

Gill says divorce isn't such a taboo anymore because cultural norms and family dynamics are shifting. Today, most partners in South Asian couples both earn an income, divide household obligations, and both men and women aren't so dependent on one another — something that was very different for their parents.

But Ahuja adds divorce is also happening with older couples as well. "I have several files where there are couples who have been married for 30 years or more and where families just have had enough," he says.

Exes are also changing the rules on how to interact post-divorce. Shanti*, a 41-year-old Sikh Punjabi woman from Calgary who is currently finalizing her divorce after four years of separation, says after she and her ex-husband realized that living together wasn't working, the couple parted ways but continued to focus on their daughter.

"At the end of the day, we wanted to be parents together but we didn't want to be married together," she says. These days, the two still talk daily to make sure their daughter attends play therapy, for example, and make sure they regularly express to their daughter that she is loved by both parents.

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Sheikh, who has now been divorced for six years, is a completely different woman. The bubbly, petite woman overflows with confidence, a trait she developed throughout her divorce. She’s a debt-free real estate broker in the Greater Toronto Area, and lives with her daughters who are now young adults. None of them have spoken to Sheikh’s ex since 2008.

Getting to now hasn't been easy. The post-divorce journey was not only heartbreaking, but expensive as well. Even though she was in a good place in her career, post-divorce, she needed the financial help. She remembers going to her close friends, asking them to borrow money for everything from lawyers to mortgage bills.

"South Asian women are fearful of their finances, or if they have kids they think they should stay in a marriage," she says. "My kids were so scared and they were watching [my husband and I]. If you stay in an abusive relationship, it affects them."

Her passion for openly talking about her divorce and helping other women in similar situations has helped her heal. She is still in touch with her immediate family — including her eldest brother — who have changed their own views on divorce for the better.

But moving on or finding someone new isn't always easy either, says relationship expert Yvonne Sinniah, especially if men and women aren't ready to openly talk about their divorce.

"There's a fear of being judged and being rejected. When you go through a divorce, you can get over the judgement fear easily, but the major fear is rejection," she tells The Huffington Post Canada.

Sinniah, founder of Toronto-based networking and social gathering company Love Inspired, often works with South Asians over 30 who are divorced. She says for South Asian women in particular, meeting someone new in your 30s and 40s becomes a challenge, especially if you're not comfortable telling others you're divorced.

"I think some women think they come off as tainted," she says. "What we need is more spaces, through dating sites or matchmaking events, to get couples to talk through these cultural barriers."

But for the always-smiling Sheikh, who feels 20 again, nothing has been more fulfilling than talking about her divorce and moving on.

She loves teaching her daughters to make their own decisions and also has an "awesome" new man in her life.

"My ex-husband, God bless him,” she says. “He came into my life to give me that experience so I know what it's like to be with a good person."