When she married at 26, Aisha had no idea about her legal rights as a female citizen of the United States. A first generation American, she did know that Islamic law entitled her to a dowry as well as maintenance by her husband, in exchange for obeying him, keeping the household, and allowing her womb to procreate. She knew she had to get his permission to get a job. She married a man “fresh off the boat.” Knowing he had no savings and worked a menial job, she asked him in lieu of money or jewelry, to promise her a back massage every night. She also secretly hoped that might also lead to nightly intimacy, and she was naturally willing to return the favor. He agreed to this. He also agreed to a small family only wedding, with each side inviting five persons.
Much to her surprise, the night before her wedding, while she was covered in henna, she received a phone call from her fiancé alerting her to the fact that he had bowed to peer pressure, stood on top of a table, and invited all his friends to Aisha’s parents’ house for the wedding. Aisha did not have time to invite all her friends on such short notice, and her best friend stopped talking to her after she didn’t get the message.
On the wedding day, in front of all these guests, the imam asked her if she would accept this marriage for a dowry of $1,200. She was astonished, since there had never been any such discussion of money. But she was too shy to speak up in front of the crowd. She assumed that her husband-to-be was just too embarrassed to admit the real dowry promise, and so had added this into the agreement as a cover-up.
However, the day after the wedding when she said with an innocent smile, “Can I have my backrub now?” her husband refused! He was astonished by her sense of entitlement.
“But you promised!” she insisted.
“Nobody gets married in exchange for backrubs.” He told her she was ridiculous.
She never received any $1,200 cash gift either.
A couple years into the marriage, her husband bought a computer that they would both use and asked her to accept that in lieu of the dowry.
In truth, he was not entirely irresponsible – he did financially maintain her and the children with a generous settlement after divorce. But his refusal to acknowledge personal responsibility for a legally binding verbal agreement cost him his marriage, because in doing so, he insultingly treated his wife as chattel, as a non-person.
What could Aisha have done differently to have avoided this pitfall with someone otherwise regarded as a good man?
The second time she got married, she continued to be lovingly humble and it turned out even much, much worse. Ironically, her new mother-in-law didn’t approve her to invite one friend to her own wedding, since it was to be family only.
By this time, Aisha was so isolated as a housewife and full time mother that she had started to think of “the world outside” as a scary place. But when the second husband’s mental abuse became too extreme that she realized he truly didn’t regard her as a person with legal rights, her fear caused her to turn to the government for help. Approaching the steps of the local health center, she started to relax when strangers smiled at her and her children.
As a pregnant mother whose husband was unemployed, she instantly qualified for medical insurance, food stamps, and WIC. She was also placed on a waiting list for discounted housing. As soon as she separated from her husband, all these benefits transferred to her and gave her children a safety net that her husband had never provided no matter what his income. In both marriages, she had always thought in terms of money being “her husband’s money.”
Even though her husband, after she tearfully begged him to divorce her, had pronounced “talaq talaq talaq,” he later denied that he had given her a divorce. For the next five years, he tormented her by stalking her, insisting she was still his wife. He used an outdated stereotype of Islam to justify treating her as a person without right of personhood. Even the most basic right, the right to freely decide if one chooses to agree to marriage.
Aisha learned to file motions in court. All of the legal documents required to apply for child support, court order a child care schedule, divorce, or even a restraining order, can be downloaded from the local family and probate court to print out.
Going to the courthouse was a daunting task at first. They really don’t make it easy. There are certain forms that need to be filled out (including financial exemption from filing fees and service fees – meaning when the sheriff serves him with papers). There are many different lines she had to stand in. But the courthouse employees are used to first timers and politely advised her.
Women can get free legal advice from their local domestic abuse hotline, and there should be an office at the courthouse for guidance as to what forms to ask for. During divorce, always focus your affidavit arguments to issues regarding the children.
When it comes to domestic abuse situations, whether mental or physical, do not bother with a lawyer unless you want to negotiate with your spouse. In the event of a truly unreasonable spouse, the quickest way to get it over with is just to go in front of a judge. You can get divorced in a few hearings. They have heard it all before. You just tell them the truth and they will advise. The scariest thing about standing up for yourself is having to face your user spouting bald faced lies as well as half truths designed to malign you and deprive you of your voice. Do not look him in the eye. Look humbly at the judge. Pray for God’s justice and the life your children deserve to see you lead, free of intimidation or devaluing of person.