Women apply for most Islamic divorces in Australia, but imams often refuse to grant them. Muslim leaders have condemned domestic violence, though some still teach that husbands can control their wives.
This feature is part of an ongoing investigation by ABC News edited by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson into religion and domestic violence. Other articles in this series have examined Islam, mainstream Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, Christian clergy wives, Hindu and Sikh communities, and Jewish divorce laws.
The first time Noor* visited the Board of Imams Victoria, in Melbourne’s Coburg North, to apply for an Islamic divorce, she took with her an audio recording she had secretly made during one of her husband’s violent outbursts.
“It was of one night when he was screaming and yelling at me in front of the children,” said Noor, a Muslim who wore a niqab during her decades-long marriage.
“He was verbally abusing me, smashing doors, ripping up sheets, putting down me and my family … I taped it thinking no one would believe me.”
Once inside the building, a glass-fronted office space wedged between an electrical store and a denture clinic on a sleepy stretch of Sydney Road, Noor sat down nervously before a panel of five male imams and carefully recounted the years of physical, emotional and financial abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband, who had recently breached the intervention order she had taken out against him.
He often criticised and yelled at her in front of the kids, she told ABC News, for petty reasons — for example, if she didn’t prepare food to his liking.
And he beat her, she said, when she confronted him about his escalating financial abuse.
Family and domestic violence support services:
For a long time, she believed his violence was her fault. “I would think it was reasonable”, she said, “because I thought I’d done something wrong, and I deserved it.”
He also repeatedly threatened to take another wife, which hurt and distressed Noor, not only because they were already struggling financially.
“I’m allowed to marry four women,” he told her. “You have to change your Western mentality.”
Now he was refusing to grant her a religious divorce.
Muslims in Australia may have a civil divorce, but if they do not also obtain a religious divorce, they are considered still married in Islamic law — and in the eyes of their community.
Getting an Islamic divorce, however, can be a difficult and protracted process, especially for women, who face stricter requirements for initiating divorce than men, depending on the laws of their cultural community.
While a husband is allowed to divorce his wife at any time, without cause, often imams will not grant a woman divorce without her husband’s consent, or proof she has legitimate grounds for an annulment (which, depending on the legal school, can include infidelity, physical, financial or emotional harm, and sexual dysfunction).
In theory, domestic violence is one such reason: if a woman can prove her husband has been abusive — for example, by producing an intervention order, or photographs of her physical injuries — imams in Australia say they’ll dissolve the marriage and hand over the paperwork, no problem.
But in practice, advocates and survivors say many imams are denying women the right to divorce, in too many cases detaining them in abusive marriages for years.
This was Noor’s experience. Having presented the Board of Imams with what she believed was sufficient evidence, she was hopeful they’d acknowledge her husband’s violence and swiftly grant a divorce.
Instead they dismissed the tape, she said, and told her to give the relationship another chance. “I honestly thought they weren’t listening to me,” she said. “They wanted me to go back and try again for the sake of the kids.”
When she insisted she had tried, that she had made up her mind, they told her they needed to hear her husband’s “side of the story” and that they’d be in touch after that.
It took six months for the Board of Imams to get back to her, Noor said, at which point they claimed to have forgotten the details of her case and asked her to come back in to retell her story.
Eventually, after a year of waiting, calling, praying, Noor — who had moved in with her parents — withdrew her divorce application, defeated and depleted.
“It killed me,” she said. At that stage she wasn’t interested in starting a new relationship; she simply longed to be free of a man who for years had controlled every aspect of her life.
“For me to move on psychologically I had to get that Islamic divorce … I just wanted closure for me and my children, and at the same time I wanted [my ex] to stop saying I was his wife.”
‘It’s easier to divorce in some Muslim countries’
In many Muslim countries around the world, women-led campaigns to reform Islamic laws governing marriage and divorce are gaining momentum.
In India, for example, the government is set to introduce new laws banning Muslim men from instantly divorcing their wives simply by pronouncing “talaq” — the Arabic word for divorce — three times.
Some countries — including Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco — also stipulate women’s right to initiate divorce in standard marriage contracts.
But in Australia, where Islamic law (sharia) operates in the shadow of the official legal system and the all-male imams who administer it with impunity, Muslim women’s right to leave a marriage is not always recognised.
Compounding the problem, social workers and survivors say, is the fact that many imams are ignorant or dismissive of the dynamics and seriousness of domestic violence.
(There is no evidence suggesting Muslim women experience domestic abuse at a higher rate; no reliable data on this question has ever been collected in Australia.)
ABC News has interviewed several Muslim women in Australia who have experienced great difficulty getting a divorce.
Many were threatened, raped or beaten by their husbands after instigating the process; one, a Lebanese Muslim woman living in Melbourne, said she had left her husband nine years ago but had been denied a divorce several times by the Board of Imams Victoria, who said they couldn’t track the man down to seek his approval.
Now, advocates are sounding the alarm and demanding agency and equality for women in the Islamic divorce process, which they say is not only stacked against women and re-traumatising for survivors of abuse, but putting women’s lives at risk.
Salma*, who has worked with Australian Muslim women escaping violence for more than two decades, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from imams, says she has never seen a woman get an Islamic divorce easily “unless her husband wants to divorce her, too”.
“It is easier to get a divorce in some Muslim countries” — where women’s rights are outlined in statutory laws — “than it is in Australia,” Salma said.
“That’s not without its complications, and women can still have a difficult time, but they’re not held captive by how a particular imam at a particular mosque interprets sharia.”
Trapping women in unwanted marriages is a form of abuse, Salma says, and a violation of human rights: “For women to not have the absolute right to leave a marriage is the very definition of structural violence and it needs to change.”
Imams say they have taken steps in recent years to improve the process for women — for example, by participating in family violence training programs and employing women to assist with divorce applications involving domestic abuse.
“We don’t force any woman to go back to her husband or ‘be patient’ — that’s not the way,” said Sheikh Muhammad Nawas Saleem, the secretary of the Board of Imams Victoria, one of several informal councils of imams in Australia that adjudicates Islamic divorce (these councils represent the Sunni denomination of Islam, of which the vast majority of Muslims in Australia are part).
But an ABC investigation — part of an ongoing series examining the complex links between religion and domestic violence — has found that just in the past few weeks, several women with family violence intervention orders have been told to return to unsafe marriages by the Board of Imams Victoria.
(In Victoria, a family violence intervention order is made by a magistrate to protect a person from family violence, including physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse.)
‘But he doesn’t hit you’
One woman who had suffered severe physical and emotional abuse by her husband for more than a decade applied to the Board of Imams Victoria for a divorce earlier this year.
But according to a family violence worker assisting the woman, during one of her meetings the imams said they would not finalise the divorce unless she first came in to discuss the terms with her husband.
The fact that she had an intervention order against him didn’t matter, they said; she could sit in one corner of the room and her husband in another.
“I was shocked,” said the family violence worker, who asked not to be named. “There’s no respect for the law.”
In a subsequent meeting, the worker said, the imams told the woman to go back to her husband and “try again” for a month.
“They tried to convince her to go back. They said, ‘for the sake of the kids, go back’,” she said. “But it was for the sake of her children that she left him in the first place.”
Part of the problem is the stubborn belief among many imams that domestic abuse is only ever physical.
Late last year, Maryam*, a mother of three living in Melbourne, met twice with the Board of Imams Victoria.
The two imams handling her divorce application disregarded her husband’s abuse and insisted she go back to him, she said, despite the fact she had left him several times in recent years and had previously taken out an intervention order against him.
Her husband, who is still refusing to agree to the divorce, had been controlling from the beginning of their marriage, she told ABC News: she wasn’t allowed to spend a cent without his permission, he tried to stop her from working and he was critical of her housework, yelling at her and complaining to her family if she didn’t cook and clean to his liking.
He even tracked the kilometres she drove in the car, she said, and accused her of lying about where she’d been if the odometer showed a higher reading than he believed was appropriate.
“I told them [the imams] it’s an emotionally, psychologically and financially abusive relationship. But they were like, ‘But he doesn’t hit you’ … Because he wasn’t hitting me they didn’t consider it domestic violence,” Maryam said.
“I’m really upset, and I’m disappointed in them because they’re supposed to be leaders and role models, and instead they’re pushing me back to an abusive relationship and just telling me to live with it.”
Survivors say this attitude — that women are unqualified to make decisions about their own safety and wellbeing — is evident among Australia’s most senior Islamic clerics.
Yasmin* recently met with then Grand Mufti of Australia, Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, to request an Islamic divorce after her husband’s physical, emotional and verbal abuse had become unbearable.
(A Sunni Islamic scholar, the Grand Mufti is elected by the Australian National Imams Council. A new Mufti was elected last month.)
Sitting in his Fairfield office, she claims she told him she had fled the marital home and was adamant there was no going back: “At times he was compassionate,” Yasmin said.
“But he said that, because I am a woman, I was very emotional and that I wasn’t thinking with a clear mind. He told me to go away and think about it before I made a decision.”
At no point during her meetings with him, she claims, did the Mufti refer her to any domestic violence services or suggest she go to police: “I felt really let down … that I didn’t really have a voice,” she said.
“I was terrified of something bad happening — people were telling me that leaving is the most dangerous time, and I didn’t know what he [my ex] was capable of. And yet I was being made to feel as if I was making the wrong decision, that I didn’t know how to keep a marriage going … that I was too free-minded.”
After several weeks — and, according to Yasmin, two heated arguments with the Mufti about her Islamic rights and entitlements — she says she was reluctantly granted a divorce, though her dealings with him and other Western Sydney imams have left her scarred.
“If I ever had an ounce of love for my religion, it’s been taken away from me because of the way these men have completely hijacked it to benefit them.”
In a response from his lawyers, Dr Ibrahim said he was “very surprised by these allegations”.
He stressed that he does not divorce couples, nor officiate Islamic marriages, and “does not ordinarily meet with members of the public to discuss these issues”.
He added that it is the Australian National Imams Council’s “procedure to refer the victims of any suspected emotional or psychological forms of domestic abuse to a psychologist … and any physical domestic abuse to the police” and that he has “certainly employed this practice in his personal capacity”.
Women do not have equal rights to divorce
So if refusing to let women leave violent marriages is, as imams insist, “not the way”, if they are taking domestic violence as seriously as they claim, why are women still struggling to access religious divorce? What can be done? And why are so few women prepared to speak out about their experience?
ABC News has interviewed dozens of survivors, social workers, women’s advocates, academics and imams over the past four months with three main findings.
First, the Islamic divorce process is often inconsistent and ad-hoc, confusing for women to navigate, lacking in procedural fairness and administered by imams who operate with no oversight or accountability.
Second, imams’ response to women seeking divorce from abusive husbands shows a persistent lack of awareness — or worse, a blatant ignorance or denial — of the dynamics of domestic violence and the legal conditions of intervention orders.
As a result, women are being told by imams who claim to be acting in the name of Islamic law to be patient with violent marriages.
But the crux of the issue, experts say, is the fact that the laws governing Islamic divorce in Australia are based on deeply conservative, patriarchal interpretations of Islam, which means women’s rights are ultimately ignored.
As Salma said: “Unless women are given the right to divorce that is equivalent to men’s, every other sort of reform is window-dressing.”
In addition, many Muslims believe Islamophobia in Australia continually distorts any discussion of their religion with an intensity and focus on fringe groups or sentiments that do not represent the whole community.
This, they say, deters them from speaking out about issues like gender inequality and domestic violence and is stifling progress in Muslim communities, by giving cover to imams, and perpetuating the silence among women, leaving them more vulnerable to abuse.
Simply raising the issue is often construed as an attack on Islam, rather than an opportunity to examine cultural factors — or patriarchal structures — within Muslim communities that may be exacerbating or concealing abuse.
Imams were put on notice a decade ago
The little evidence that has been produced on family violence in Muslim communities has long been buried.
A decade ago, imams accused of condoning domestic violence were put on notice when a landmark report by the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria revealed some imams were condoning rape in marriage, hindering police from pursuing domestic violence charges and denying abused women seeking Islamic divorce their rights and entitlements.
The 2008 research, which was commissioned and funded by the Howard Government, involved “extensive community consultation” with Muslim women, community and legal workers and police.
Imams, who it said were ill-equipped to respond to complex modern problems including marriage, divorce and domestic abuse, were also reported to have conducted polygamous and underage marriages.
In response, Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam, then Mufti of Australia, said it was “absolutely wrong” that women’s rights were ignored in marriage or divorce, or that imams brushed aside domestic violence.
He also “absolutely” denied the issues raised in the report. “They must have heard stories here and there and are writing about them as though they are fact,” he said of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council.
The report then vanished and has never been publicly released; the Home Affairs department said it was unable to supply ABC News with a copy because “it is not a publicly available report”. It declined to provide further comment.
What are imams saying about abuse?
However, the problems identified in the 2008 report are still significant, and remain unaddressed, Muslim women say.
A close examination of public statements by some influential Muslim clerics reveals conflicting messages about whether Islam allows for — or even at times condones — the non-physical abuse and control of women.
Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, the president of the Australian National Imams Council, was the lead signatory on a letter signed last year by more than 30 Muslim figures that condemned “all forms of intimidation and abuse targeting women”.
Blunt and unequivocal, the statement was released after a Facebook video — in which two women from the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir discuss the apparent right of husbands to physically discipline disobedient wives — sparked fierce backlash.
And for three years in a row (in 2014, 2015 and 2016), to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in November, the National Imams Council called on imams around the country to deliver a special Friday sermon — or khutbah — on domestic violence.
In public lectures Mr Alsuleiman has often admonished Muslim men to honour and “look after women in the most respectful manner” and railed against troubling attitudes towards women in modern Muslim communities.
Some men still boast about telling off their wives, and putting “fear in [their] heart”, he said in a 2016 lecture about women. “That’s a mentality that exists not only amongst Arabs, [but amongst] even non-Arabs.”
In the same sermon, he stressed that men should “never strike the face … never hit” their spouse: “The prophet Mohammed … never hit his wife,” he said. “That’s not the character of [a] man.”
But while many Muslim leaders and imams in Australia are consistent in their denouncing of physical violence, what is less clear is their approach to emotional, psychological, financial and sexual abuse.
A consistent theme in public pronouncements by imams both here and overseas is that men have the authority to control the movements and actions of their wives, and that women must obey and respect their husbands without qualification.
If a husband does not want his wife to work, for example, he can, according to some imams, forbid her to.
“If the wife goes to work when the husband tells her not to work,” Mr Alsuleiman said in a 2009 lecture on marriage and divorce, “she’s disobedient, she’s disobeying Allah.”
That alone would give any husband the right to divorce his wife on the spot: “[I]f she’s going to work without his consent, then she’s disobeying him, that’s haram,” he said.
“He could divorce her and give her nothing.”
The belief that Muslim men can forbid their wives from working outside the home does not appear to be isolated. ABC News has obtained an audio recording of a man recently asking a Sydney imam whether he is allowed to stop his wife from working, visiting friends, and having people over to their house.
“Yeah, absolutely,” the imam responded.
And in a 2016 lecture on a the “rights” of husbands, Mr Alsuleiman said women were forbidden from bringing anyone, including family, into their home without their husband’s consent.
“She doesn’t have the authority … to allow anyone in his house”, he said, even her mother and father, “because that house belongs to the man.”
And if a husband does not want his wife to leave the house, he said, she must obey him “even if it is to go and visit her parents or to go shopping or to go down the road or even to visit her friends.”
Mr Alsuleiman, who provides couples with marriage counselling, said he had been asked whether this included going “in the backyard to put up the laundry” by a woman whose husband demanded she call him every time she did this.
This person has “lost the plot”, Mr Alsuleiman said, and it is “drastic and extreme”, but “that’s his right”.
According to a 2011 review by the Australian Parliament, the definition of domestic violence includes social abuse, defined as “systematic isolation from family and friends, instigating and controlling relocations to a place where the victim has no social circle or employment opportunities and preventing the victim from going out to meet people.”
Economic (or financial) abuse includes control of all money as well as “preventing the victim seeking or holding employment and taking wages earned by the victim”.
Dr Ibrahim in his statement to ABC News said that “Islam teaches that throughout marriage, both spouses are required to communicate effectively and come to an agreement on a range of issues”. Women, he said, “do not need to ask for permission every time they leave the house including to collect the washing”.
Islamic divorce: For women, a complex process
For many Muslim women, getting a religious divorce — often in addition to a civil divorce — is non-negotiable, not just because women cannot remarry under Islamic law without first being granted one.
Particularly for those who have experienced domestic violence, divorce can also bring emotional relief and a sense of freedom.
According to Maha Abdo, CEO of the Muslim Women Association, which operates one of the few crisis centres for Muslim women escaping domestic violence in Australia, most Muslim women who are ending their marriage — whether they are religious or not — will want an Islamic divorce.
“I cannot stress how important it is to these women,” Ms Abdo said. “Sometimes they will get their civil divorce but they will still want us to go through with them to get that paper from the imams to say you are divorced, you are free … It’s about closure.”
But while applying for a civil divorce in Australia is a relatively straightforward process available to either spouse through the Family Court, under classical Islamic laws men and women have different grounds on which they can initiate divorce.
And in the absence of sharia courts and judges, this process is usually controlled by informal councils or boards or imams (the biggest of these are in New South Wales and Victoria), whose interpretations of sharia can vary wildly, even among imams on the same panel.
For example, a husband has the unilateral right to extrajudicial divorce, without cause, simply by pronouncing talaq.
On the other hand, unless a man has elected in the couple’s Islamic marriage contract to give the right of talaq to his wife, a woman must persuade an imam or board of imams that she has valid grounds for divorce.
Depending on the legal school, as part of a wife-initiated-divorce, or khula, she may also need to obtain the consent of her husband and return to him part or all of her mahr, or dowry.
But problems arise when a husband refuses to agree to a divorce, which is often the case for women experiencing domestic violence.
Many men also bully imams into denying their wife her rights and entitlements. “It’s about power and control,” Ms Abdo says of men who refuse to cooperate.
“Without the right support you’ll see her be manipulated [by her husband] over and over again … the manipulation of the divorce process, stringing it out, is traumatising … it’s abuse in itself.”
In such cases — which several boards of imams say are “common” — imams will grant a woman an annulment, or tafriq, if she can prove her husband has been violent or abusive towards her.
The standard of proof is high. “We accept intervention orders as proof,” Sheikh Nawas told ABC News. “A lot of people [also] come and show us photos as evidence of domestic violence, physical abuse.”
In an average week, the Board of Imams Victoria receives about four or five applications for Islamic divorce, Sheikh Nawas says — 95 per cent of which are made by women.
The reason for the high rate of female applicants, he says, is domestic violence: about 70 per cent of divorces the board grants are tafriqs.
The Australian National Council of Imams — the umbrella organisation for all state-based councils or boards of Islamic clergy of which Shady Alsuleiman is President — did not return dozens of calls and messages, or respond to repeated requests for comment via email.
However, speaking via his lawyers, Dr Ibrahim said: “Islam does not require proven grounds for divorce as a pre-condition to its grant”.
Divorce, he said, is granted “if and when requested by either spouse”. “It is superfluous to say … that any form of domestic abuse is grounds for Islamic divorce.”
This is the case, he said, “even in the absence of evidence” — although this has not been the experience of several Muslim women interviewed by ABC News.
In response to claims that imams in Australia are currently handling the Islamic divorce process to women’s detriment, Dr Ibrahim said he did “not agree that a proper application of the Islamic divorce process privileges men’s rights and entitlements over women’s”.
“If imams are causing this, it is clearly wrong, and not in accordance with Islamic principles,” he said.
Imam Faizel Gaffoor of the Board of Imams Western Australia says he personally receives about four or five divorce applications a month, all of which are made by women.
If a woman wants to end her marriage for whatever reason, he said, especially if she has experienced domestic abuse, “she has grounds to ask for — and there is reason to grant — a divorce”.
Most divorce applications result in an annulment being granted, Imam Faizel said, because abusive husbands frequently refuse to cooperate with the process.
In such cases, however, there can be delays of up to three months, during which time he takes steps to help the husband come to terms with the situation, and protect the wife.
“Men can be very aggressive and violent when … they feel they’re losing control of their family,” he said.
“So my [strategy] is to mediate — not for reconciliation but to help the husband understand and accept that his marriage has broken down, to avoid a violent response towards the wife or children.”
ABC News understands several imams, including Imam Faizel, have themselves been threatened or physically and verbally abused by husbands who believe they have the sole authority to grant their wife a divorce.
Family violence a ‘major theme’ among divorced women
Imams’ view that a significant number of applications for Islamic divorce are made by women experiencing domestic violence has been mirrored in new research.
For the three-year study, Ghena Krayem, senior lecturer at the Sydney University Law School, and her team conducted 50 in-depth interviews with Australian Muslim women who had gone through the Islamic divorce process, as well as imams, lawyers and psychologists, to better understand women’s experiences of the process and make recommendations for improvement.
“We are yet to analyse the findings … which will be published at the end of the year,” Dr Krayem said.
“But definitely the issue of family violence has emerged as a major theme in the divorce cases we have looked at.”
While some women have reported “positive” experiences of the Islamic divorce process, Dr Krayem said, “The challenges in getting a divorce are no doubt compounded for women who have experienced family violence.”
One such challenge is the fact that many women are intimidated by having to relay intimate details of their abuse to a panel of several men.
Some boards of imams have sought to remedy this in recent years by bringing on women as secretaries or support workers, Dr Krayem said. “But women have said they would ideally like to see a woman sitting on the side of the imams, in a position of authority.”
And while some imams are responding to family violence “extremely well”, Dr Krayem said, others handle it “quite poorly”.
“The imams that do most of this work [facilitating the divorce process] are starting to understand the significance of family violence,” she said. “But they may not yet be at the point of having the right processes or procedures in place.”
Dr Krayem’s previous research has shown many Muslim women also report difficulties just finding where to apply for divorce, and lengthy delays once the process is underway.
However, she says there has been a “significant shift” in the past decade in how imams are handling divorce.
For example, where once women would apply to individual imams (some still do), in recent years, imams have attempted to professionalise the process by forming organised boards who oversee it.
“Certainly the imams I interviewed in Victoria and New South Wales are very conscious of the fact that it’s a women’s process — that women should be able to get a divorce if they need or seek one,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean all imams across Australia operate like that, but the more established bodies do, and so a woman will always have recourse to those bodies.”
‘Women don’t know what their rights are’
But do they have recourse?
Anisa Buckley, who researches gender and Islam at Melbourne University, says: “The biggest obstacle … facing Muslim women in securing religious divorce is the belief across communities, families and religious leaders … that Muslim women require their husband’s consent when seeking to initiate divorce, and have limited grounds upon which to initiate divorce.”
Imams in Australia also tend to use “outdated interpretations” of Islamic law, Dr Buckley said, despite the fact many Muslim countries have introduced reforms to improve the process for women.
And there remains a significant lack of women in key roles — again, despite the fact there have been female judges in sharia courts in Indonesia and other Muslim countries for many years.
Maha Abdo, who has been working with Muslim women escaping domestic violence for more than 30 years, argues imams are listening to and consulting with women more than they have in the past: “But it’s not enough.”
“Why can’t we have a woman on the panel [of imams], or at least part of the decision-making process?” she said.
But for Salma, the process itself is the problem. “Women shouldn’t have to face any panel at all,” she said.
“It infantilises them and treats them like they are incapable of making decisions about their own lives. The collapse of a relationship is difficult enough, and women … shouldn’t have to explain to a panel of Muslims, men or women, why they’re seeking divorce.”
So what can be done?
It is crucial women understand their Islamic entitlement to seek and be granted divorce, Salma says — especially in cases of domestic violence, but also if a woman just doesn’t want to be married anymore.
That also means educating women about the importance of civilly registering their marriage, which gives them greater protection — especially in divorce — under Australian law.
But for Maha Abdo, teaching women their “rights” after the fact is impractical.
Women must insist that their right to initiate divorce is included in their Islamic marriage contract, she said, which makes the divorce process easier should the marriage fall apart.
While a growing number of women are starting to do this, she said, ideally such contracts should be promoted as standard by boards of imams.
It may sound like a good solution in theory, but in many Muslim communities, women who simply enquire about their rights are met with resistance and hostility, especially from faith leaders.
Shortly before their wedding in Sydney last year, Jaweriya*, a 30-year-old Muslim, and her fiance approached the sheikh who would be conducting the ceremony to ask about including a clause in their marriage contract that would give her the right to divorce and prohibit her husband from taking multiple wives.
Growing up, Jaweriya, who wears a hijab, had seen many men in her community abuse the divorce process, and was fearful of being trapped in a marriage that had soured.
But the sheikh was taken aback by her request, she said, and tried to discourage her.
“His first reaction was, ‘It’s probably not good to start your marriage with that bad taste in your mouth’,” she told ABC News.
Eventually, after weeks of negotiation, the sheikh agreed to the clause. But Jaweriya, who is university-educated and has studied Islamic law, is conscious other Muslim women, who typically marry much younger than she did, may not be as assertive as she was.
“A lot women don’t know what their rights are … Nobody tells you these things,” she said. “I have so many friends who got married who didn’t know [they could include a divorce clause in their marriage contract].”
Another significant barrier is the view of many Muslims that women should strive to keep their family together no matter how difficult or dangerous the situation.
“It is all about community, a sense of guilt over ending relationships,” Salma said. “No Muslim woman has been brought up to believe it is okay for her to walk away from a marriage … so when it occurs, it completely paralyses them.”
She added: “All the structural change in the world is not going to help if women feel they’re unworthy of making that fundamental decision about their wellbeing and that of their children’s.”
Change is afoot
But survivors are adamant that structural change must happen. And some imams, it seems, are listening.
In Western Australia, for example, currently women seeking Islamic divorce must apply to individual imams in the community rather than an official board. But Imam Faizel Gaffoor says he and others are in the process of establishing a panel to adjudicate applications.
An ideal scenario, he said, would see a woman confide in just one trusted, trained imam about her abuse, not several.
“The panel is only there to decide the outcome [of her divorce application], not listen to the detail and have the applicant bare her soul in front of four strange men, over and over again.”
A social worker of 20 years, Imam Faizel says he also speaks about domestic abuse during Islamic marriage ceremonies, despite resistance from families who insist on weddings being purely joyous — not serious — occasions.
“The prophet never, ever hit his wife — I always bring that up,” he said.
“But anger is my key issue. I say, you’ll have financial strain, conflicts, disputes, but there are ways of dealing with that. Go hit a wall, go talk to your mum and dad, go talk to your friend. But you do not hit your wife, you don’t hit your partner.”
And, after developing a domestic violence resource for imams last year, the Board of Imams Victoria says it plans on running more training programs for faith leaders in 2018.
“We are also designing a pre-marriage course to teach couples their rights and responsibilities,” Sheikh Nawas said.
This, he said, would include information about how women experiencing domestic abuse can access legal assistance or support services, if they need to.
The board has also appointed a women’s officer, Lina Ayoubi, to coordinate divorce applications and assist women going through the process.
“The imams had heard vulnerable women … felt intimidated coming to the board, appearing before the panel of men,” said Ms Ayoubi, who is usually the first point of contact for abused women applicants.
“The women are very grateful for the support from another woman … especially those who don’t want their relatives to hear about their abuse or problems.”
When she first started in her role in 2014, Ms Ayoubi said, there was a backlog of hundreds of divorce application cases, which the imams had struggled to stay on top of. “I’ve since worked through them,” she said. “You need someone to coordinate these things.”
Previously, it might have taken the imams six months after a woman first applied for divorce to interview her in person. Now, Ms Ayoubi says, an appointment is made within a week of an application being made.
As she sipped soft drink in a Brunswick pastry shop, Ms Ayoubi said it was difficult to go about her day without crossing paths with a divorcee. Just minutes earlier, she’d run into one such woman, who was keen to hear about her pending application.
Her husband, Ms Ayoubi later explained, was refusing to grant her a divorce; he was happy to pay her maintenance and leave her alone, so long as she didn’t remarry.
“He wants to own her,” Ms Ayoubi said. “He’s very obsessed with his wife.” (The man would be “shocked”, she added, when he found out the Board of Imams had already granted the woman an annulment: “She’s coming on Saturday to collect the papers.”)
For Noor at least, Ms Ayoubi played a crucial role. After repeated attempts, she had all but given up on getting an Islamic divorce; even her friends were telling her to let it go.
“They said, ‘You don’t have to go through this, you got your Australian divorce and it’s in your heart, between you and Allah, that you’re divorced,” Noor said.
But last year, at Ms Ayoubi’s encouragement, she reapplied.
During consultations with her husband, which began soon after her case was reopened, the imams saw his abusive side, she said, and granted her an annulment — years after she first walked into their office.
“It’s so important to have a woman involved,” Noor said. “It’s so hard for a woman to go in and tell all those men about her abuse.”
However, Noor says she has since supported several friends who have been (or are still going through) the Islamic divorce process and feels imams are still not taking family violence seriously enough.
While some of the younger imams are aware of and sensitive to the dynamics of abuse, she said, some of the older leaders are guided by their belief that “men are superior to — and therefore have rights over — women”.
“When it comes to domestic violence they’re not all on the same page,” she said. “Women have been telling me they feel like they’re not being believed, that they’re being forced back to their husbands, being pressured to forgo their entitlements.”
Silence can be deadly
Women are also under extreme pressure to keep quiet.
In addition to the safety risks, the shame and stigma surrounding domestic violence can prevent any woman from leaving, let alone speaking out.
But for many Muslim women, the belief that they will be betraying their faith — or exposing their community to even more scrutiny, and possibly Islamophobia — if they report violence or abuse, dissuades many from talking publicly about their experience.
ABC News spoke with several survivors who declined to speak on record about their difficulties accessing Islamic divorce: some feared for their safety, while others were wary of being identified and criticised by friends and family.
Even when Muslim women do speak out about violence or gender inequality, Dr Krayem says, they are often derided or blamed for it. Not only does this cripple public debate, it also perpetuates silence, which allows abuse to flourish.
“Anything [women] Muslim community members say is dismissed as a sense of false consciousness: ‘You’re so oppressed you don’t know how oppressed you are; you’re not questioning the practices’. And that completely ignores the amazing activism within the Muslim community,” Dr Krayem said.
For Salma, however, the Muslim community’s “obsession” with Islamophobia is too often a distraction, and must be overcome.
“Islamophobia is a real concern in Australia and Muslims, especially Muslims of colour and women, bear the brunt of that racism and vilification,” she said.
“But I sometimes feel that Muslim community leaders and other experts privilege Islamophobia over other, sometimes more devastating forms of violence and abuse against women. And again, women’s suffering is made invisible and diminished when it is compared to other types of violence.”
Melbourne restaurateur and activist Hana Assafiri, who runs Speed Date a Muslim events to help tackle Islamophobia, understands why many women are reluctant to speak out about family violence.
“If they air the dirty laundry they’ll cop the backlash,” Ms Assafiri said.
But regardless of whether it occurs in Muslim or Christian or Jewish communities, she said, “abuse needs to be called out. If your laundry is dirty … it needs airing.”
Ms Assafiri, who, after being forced into an unwanted marriage at 15, went on to work in the domestic violence sector for 15 years, employs about 30 Muslim women across her two cafes, many of whom have escaped domestic violence.
She has seen countless women approach imams for divorce and instead be pushed back into violent marriages, she said.
“When there is violence there is no reconciliation to be had … It’s not okay for them [imams] to default to, ‘Oh, but you have to try’.”
Not only does this response stem from a lack of understanding of abuse, Ms Assafiri said, but from a belief that “men are superior to women”.
“Male attitudes towards domestic violence … vary from, ‘she has to obey him [her husband]’ all the way through to ‘he’s allowed to beat her if she’s disobedient’ … and that has to change,” she said.
“We as Muslim women must absolutely reject that interpretation. It’s not Islam, it’s not faith-based — it’s male-based.”
‘I’m not my husband’s property’
Maryam’s second appointment at the Board of Imams Victoria was with her father, her husband, and the same two imams she’d met with previously.
She had told the imams she felt uncomfortable being in the same room as her husband, she said, but they didn’t seem to care. “They said, ‘No, you have to be together’ … because there was too much contradiction between us.”
The meeting deteriorated rapidly into a shouting match; in a boardroom full of men, all arguing about her rights, Maryam was too scared to speak, and left that afternoon without a divorce.
“It was the worst day of my life,” she said. “I felt vulnerable, I was afraid … My dad and my husband did most of the talking.”
The imams told her she needed to be a better housewife, she said, and to ask her husband for permission before she left the house.
“They said, ‘both of you need to go home for a month, try to work things out, and if you still want to go ahead with the divorce, come back’.”
But she went home with her father, with whom she was living, and has had only limited contact with her husband since.
For now, Maryam is focusing on rebuilding her life: she’s found a new job, she sees a psychologist regularly and, for the first time in a long time, she feels happy.
But it bothers her every day that she hasn’t been able to get a divorce, she says, and will go back to the Board of Imams in a few months, when she feels stronger, to pursue her case.
For her, and for many Muslim women, it’s much more than a piece of paper. “It will mean I’ll feel free,” she said.
“[My husband] still thinks he has rights over me … But I want him to know I’m not his property. I just want to be left alone.”
* The names of domestic violence survivors have been changed for security and legal reasons.
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