There is an old, but popular, Arabic saying that goes a little like this: “A shadow of a man is better than a shadow of a wall.”
It was commonly said to young women by older family members, who believed that being married was the most important aspect of a woman’s life.
Taken literally, it means that being a woman with a man, is better than being a woman on her own in an empty house sitting by the wall.
Back in the day, Arab societies considered divorce as the worst-case scenario and a terrible option for a couple.
The idea that a man and woman should officially separate their lives was never acceptable.
Socially, a divorced couple had a strong sense of taboo hanging over them. In both Islam and Christianity, divorce is known as a concept hated by God. It is even forbidden by most of the eastern churches as well. So if you are a Coptic Christian in Egypt, you have an even more difficult time to file for a divorce.
But today, the perception of divorce has slowly gone from extremely negative to slightly neutral.
As the cultural taboo of divorce has gone down, Arab countries are facing a dramatic spike in divorce rates, and new rituals are being adopted.
Women initiate divorce
According to William Doherty, a marriage therapist and professor of family social science at University of Minnesota, most divorces are initiated by women, because of the changes in women’s expectations to what a “good life” is.
Women today generally expect an equal partner, who will carry the weight of marriage with her; someone who will support her pursuit of a career as well as the pursuit of motherhood.
But in many cases, men become very dependent on the woman, and that was not the intention going into the marriage.
In the Arab world, a country with one of the highest divorce rates is Egypt: On average, a divorce case is being recorded every 4 minutes in the country’s courts.
A 2018 report issued by the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics shows divorce cases in the country rose to 18,600 in August, from 18,100 at the same month the year before.
“Marriage is hard. It’s a lot of work.” Dalia, an Egyptian, told Gulf News. “As a woman in the Middle East, you are usually the one who draws the short string. Unless you end up with someone who actually will carry 50 per cent of the weight, which is rarely the case, you have to adjust your expectations. People make it seem so fun. It’s so much more than people know.”
The statistics confirm the existence of more than 4 million divorced women, and family courts face long daily queues of married women willing to make the difficult decision of leaving their husbands.
First signs of trouble?
Yasmeen, 37, a Egyptian (from Alexandria), got divorced recently. Talking to Gulf News, she said her marriage lasted for 6 years. But it didn’t let her feel secure.
“My marriage was arranged. During my period of engagement, my ex-husband showed me a totally different person than who he really is.” “After marriage, I saw he was fully dependent on his father, doesn’t go to work, and just laid around the house playing PlayStation. He was lazy.”
All these made Yasmeen feel insecure, and she couldn’t stay in the relationship any longer. She had a different lifestyle. “I had a job, I was active and social and he was nowhere to be seen in the my circle.”
Her husband would not accompany her in outings with their son. “It was as if I had the son on my own.”
Yasmeen said she understands why many Egyptian women are getting divorced, now more than ever. From her conversations with friends and family, she figured out what the problem is.
“We are strong women, we take the lead, and we marry men who are not being responsible. Women’s rights have ruined our eco-system, we wanted equal rights, but we only got extra burdens. No one taught our men to share the burdens of a family equally,” she told Gulf News.
“Egyptian women work inside and outside the house, if you are the one who drops the children to school, the men will still be at home sleeping.”
“After you finish work, you still have to pick the children up from school, do the groceries, cook, clean, help them with their homework, and tend to the lazy man who comes at the end of the day and expects superwomen to be looking fresh and with a wide smile.”
“And, of course, if you complain about the burdens of handling work and the household, and request for him to step in and carry a bit of the weight with you, he will call you a nagger and go find himself a girlfriend who is free and can laugh and sing and dance all night with him.”
Why do marriages break down?
Dr Monica de Sousa Mendes, a Dubai-based psychologist practising for 16 years, explained reasons behind the high divorce rates.
“A marriage doesn’t just break, it erodes overtime,” she told Gulf News. “A couple is a life system and like any other system both parties react to one another. What normally precedes divorce has much to do with how a partner acts and how the other partner reacts to it.”
“From my experience, I would say the main triggers for divorce in this region are infidelities, getting married at a young age, lack of commitment or lack of responsibility from one partner, leading to too much conflicts and arguing. Also unrealistic expectations due to the cultural role of men and women.”
“And these days, there are more acute and prolonged life stressors, lack of social support and a progressive perceived lack of concern, care or attention from both partners.”
As divorce rates are skyrocketing, women have recently started the trend of celebrating divorce to savour their freedom.
To them it is not perceived as a failed marriage; rather, it is now seen as a successful exit from an unhappy marriage.
Couples between the age of 29 and 36 see the highest divorce rates in this region, according to Dr Mendes.
Sawsan, 33, married for three years, decided to throw herself a party once her divorce papers were signed.
She invited all of her best friends over, had catering, cake, juices and music. It was a happy occasion. Instead of a cake that said ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Happy Anniversary’, this cake said ‘Just Divorced’ in bright pink icing.
Divorce parties are taking the shape of weddings from invitation cards, to hotel ballrooms, fancy dress for the divorcee and even a 3D cake specially done for the occasion.
In Mauritania, divorce parties are old and part of the culture, where women would throw a party at her home, three months after finalising the divorce.
She would dress up, put henna and dance with her friends all night.
Modern divorce parties have started in Japan with an event planner called Hiroki Terai, who now only plans divorce parties or ceremonies, in a special “divorce mansion” he found in Tokyo.
Even celebrities have embraced the trend.
Lebanese singer Maysam Nahas, Egyptian actress Hana Sheeha and the Syrian Joumana Hadad have celebrated their divorces by having big parties where many celebrities were invited.
In Egypt, many people are still finding the idea of a divorce party weird and a tad un-classy. Especially since divorce is still somewhat perceived as a failure and a collapse of a relationship.
So what exactly are these women celebrating?
“I think it’s great,” Hania, an Egyptian, 27, told Gulf News. “I'm so over the whole ‘divorce is taboo’ idea. I'm not saying these parties will save these women, but Egyptians and other Arabs need to accept that sometimes ending things is better than staying in an unhealthy relationship, and these parties normalise divorces. Even today, there’s this idea that a woman can't survive without a man. You'd think that's in the past but it's really not. We still see it today.”
Some people think it’s an unnecessary display of a relationship status.
“Just no. You don’t need to publicise to the world that you got divorced.” Souha, 28, an Egyptian told Gulf News. “Honestly, just mourn the death of your marriage and say thank you, next.”
Maii, another Egyptian, said: “I wouldn’t throw a party, but I would go on a girl’s trip with my friends and do all the things I couldn’t do when I was married. I would enjoy my freedom.”
So… is divorce a good solution?
Dr Mendes said divorce is better than staying in a bad marriage. Moreover, she said, divorce isn’t the worst thing that can happen to the kids: Enduring a horrible home life is.
Of course, divorce should rarely be the first choice because, generally, the only thing keeping a “bad” marriage from being a “good” marriage is sustained mutual effort.
That being said, there are times that divorce is the best choice to allow both partners to grow and achieve the life they desire, and in some scenarios, the life they deserve.
For some people, divorce is a profound life change in terms of security, and the adjustment to it may lead to depression and severe anxiety. For others, it is a relief from fear and inertia and a new life opportunity.