As a Muslim woman, Zeenat Samodien is aware of the plight of some of her “sisters in Islam” who are trapped in loveless, abusive marriages; yet are subjected to long, arduous fights to break free.
And it was during a religious studies lecture in her second year as a sociology student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that the extent of this struggle was brought to her attention – women married according to sharia (Islamic) law faced endless challenges with acquiring a divorce.
An uphill battle
The divorce process for Muslim women is a bureaucratic nightmare and is always unnecessarily long and cumbersome. And after multiple failed attempts, many women choose to abandon the process completely, which leads to mental health challenges, emotional insecurity and increased stress. This is a reality for many women in Zeenat’s community and thousands of others in the country.
Because she felt these stories needed to be told, in 2020, she dedicated her master’s dissertation to the topic. It’s been a rocky road, with multiple twists and turns, but she has reached her goal – for now! On Thursday, 14 December, she will take to the stage in UCT’s Sarah Baartman Hall and graduate with her master’s in sociology, with distinction. She could not be prouder of this achievement. Her thesis is titled: “The lived experiences of leaving a Muslim marriage, as experienced by Muslim women in South Africa.”
“I know women who have attempted the divorce process via Islamic authorities but were unsuccessful.”
“As a married Muslim woman, I acknowledge the realities Muslim women face when they pursue a divorce from their husbands. I know women who have attempted the divorce process via Islamic authorities but were unsuccessful. These lived experiences informed my interest in this topic,” she said. “Having reached this point in my academic career has filled me with pride and a deep sense of gratitude. It has been a long, hard haul.”
Perpetual intimate partner violence
Zeenat’s research employed a qualitative research design approach and foregrounded the experiences of several Muslim women from Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. Based on her findings, she said each participant chose to institute divorce proceedings because they experienced perpetual intimate partner violence (IPV). The forms of IPV varied from physical and emotional abuse to social isolation, domineering behaviour, and economic abuse.
However, exiting their marriages was a difficult, complex and drawn-out process. And despite valid reasons, their divorces were not permitted by Islamic authoritative bodies on the first or second attempt. This, Zeenat said, meant the women were left with no other option but to remain in their marriages and adopt certain coping mechanism strategies in the home, which included “walking on eggshells”, to prevent any forms of abuse. Desperate for a divorce, several participants requested interventions from family and friends to help navigate and speed up the process. In the end, this approach was critical, and through mediation, ensured that each participant’s husband led the divorce process with Islamic authoritative councils, with success.
“My findings revealed that these women felt unprotected in their marriages. They felt like their rights didn’t matter and that they didn’t have a voice in the [divorce] process. They were forced to endure so much before the marriages ended, and even then, their ex-husbands were convinced by relatives to initiate the process. This should not be the case. Women should be able to easily exit their marriages if circumstances warrant it,” Zeenat said.
An interesting find
Her research uncovered that her participants had something else in common. Once their divorces were finalised, their ex-husbands removed themselves from their families completely. This, she added, meant that they abandoned their relationships with their children and failed to financially support them. As a result, these women were forced to approach the Maintenance Court to intervene.
“I found it very interesting that participants shared similar post-divorce experiences as well, all of which relate to absent fathers,” she said.
“I’m proud that my research contributes to the existing, albeit limited academic material that focuses on the experiences of Muslim women wanting to exit their marriages in South Africa. One of my goals with this thesis was to add to the repository of existing academic material and in doing so, to prioritise the voices of Muslim women in the country. I hope that I’ve been able to do that.”
The success of Zeenat’s master’s dissertation stems from a triumphant honours thesis, which, she added, focused on the non-recognition of Muslim marriages in South Africa. Her honours research highlighted that women married by Muslim rights felt unprotected and unrecognised by the state. At the time of this work, the Constitutional Court had not yet offered Muslim marriages legal status.
Ultimately, this body of work prepared her for her master’s degree. She said she always had many questions around divorce in Islam, women’s rights and their experiences when initiating an end to their marriage contract. So, she decided to use her master’s as an opportunity to solicit answers to these pressing questions.
“Muslim women have the right to divorce in Islam, and religious scholars should allow it.”
“What I really wanted to do was to demonstrate the experiences of Muslim women who desperately wanted to leave their marriages but were unable to. I believed, and still do, that this work should showcase their realities. Muslim women have the right to divorce in Islam, and religious scholars should allow it,” she said. “But my research findings prove that Islamic authoritative councils and bodies are reluctant to allow it, despite important reasons. But easily permit it for men. Considering the era in which we live, where IPV and gender-based violence are enormous challenges, we can’t allow this.”
Like with most graduands, Zeenat’s journey to her master’s degree was no walk in the park, and the COVID-19 pandemic presented her biggest challenge to date. As a result of the stringent lockdown requirements, she faced great difficulty with recruiting participants for her study. As a National Research Foundation (NRF) scholarship recipient, Zeenat was required to complete her degree in the specified two-year period. But with no one to interview during her second year of study, she was left with no choice but to extend her degree.
“Due to the sensitivity of the topic, I really struggled to recruit participants who were willing to participate online during the early days of the pandemic. My NRF funding was quickly coming to an end, and I needed to make a decision,” she said.
Zeenat hopped into action and registered for a third year as a UCT master’s student, and to fund her studies, she also found full-time employment. She admitted that throwing in the towel crossed her mind more than once but giving up wasn’t an option. She credits her support system, especially her peers in the department who were forced to endure similar struggles, yet chose to persevere.
“The pandemic was tough on so many people for different reasons. We couldn’t get participants involved in our research and that was so frustrating because a lot was riding on it. But we took strength in each other. We created WhatsApp groups to offer support and guidance. This was a wonderful source of motivation for me. When I felt isolated and like I just wanted to stop moving, this group provided the motivation I needed. They helped me to see the end goal, even though the posts kept moving. We cried a lot, we laughed a lot, and it was exactly what all of us needed to get us through,” she said.
Overcome with gratitude
Of her postgraduate degree, Zeenat said she is overcome with gratitude.
“It was a trying time for me for various reason, both academically and personally, especially during the pandemic. So now, having successfully reached the end of it, is an amazing feeling. I am incredibly proud of myself for keeping at it and reaching the finish line,” she said.
“Having attained my master’s, I feel the PhD is in reach.”
Zeenat has high praise for her supervisor, Professor Elena Moore, who provided her with “incredible” academic and personal support over the past three years. As she prepares for her new normal that will likely involve more time for herself and for family and friends, Zeenat is also focused on pouring as much attention into her new job as data officer on the UCT-led Family Care of Older Persons in Southern Africa programme.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, and I look forward to making a positive contribution to this very valuable programme. I also hope to identify additional areas of research interests for myself because having attained my master’s, I feel the PhD is in reach. I’m excited for what’s in store,” she said.
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