It was a festive scene and casual onlookers might have thought it was a wedding, the way that the women were carrying on, dressed in celebratory clothing and distributing candies to the guests. The party’s host, Dalia, a 39-year-old Baghdad woman, was wearing a brightly coloured evening dress and gold necklaces and she had had her makeup and hair done especially for the occasion.
But in fact, the party was not to celebrate a wedding or an engagement: Dalia was celebrating her divorce. Despite the fact that he had been violent towards her, she had not been able to divorce her husband as she had wanted to raise her children in a home with both a mother and father. But now that her children were older she had decided she would no longer compromise, Dalia said.
After just a few months of our marriage, things started going wrong. I asked him for a divorce but he would never agree.
“I did everything I could to make my marriage a success but it was not,” Dalia, who preferred not give her full name as divorce is still considered unusual in Iraq, told NIQASH. “This day is the best in my life.”
And Dalia is not the only one. As the rates of divorce increase, so do the number of divorce parties. Divorce lawsuits are now the most common kind of legal case in the country and according to official statistics from the Iraqi courts, almost 20 percent of marriages concluded over the past decade have ended in divorce.
“Divorce has become a much more common practice,” confirms Niran Yousef, a Baghdad-based sociologist. “It is no longer considered taboo or a violation of traditions. The rate of divorce has risen dramatically in the past few years.”
Still it is often quite hard for females to get a divorce. Their husband may not agree, which is why the achievement is one to celebrate, Yousef says. And it still often takes quite a lot to drive an Iraqi woman to seek a divorce – it’s far from the Western experience. In conservative circles in Iraq, women still need to be accompanied by men during their daily lives or risk being disrespected; husbands often make many decisions for their wives.
“But the way society has opened up after 2003 is part of the reason that we can now have divorce parties,” Yousef explains. “They are seen as a ceremony for women who have escaped difficult married lives.”
“After just a few months of our marriage, things started going wrong and then got worse and worse,” Arij Salman tells of her experience. “I asked him for a divorce but he would never agree. Finally I just packed up and went back to live at my parents’ house. I was there for months until he finally agreed to a divorce.”
In Iraqi society, it is rare that a woman’s request to divorce is granted, even if the husband is psychologically ill or violent or addicted, Salman explains. “I only got my divorce because I waived my rights to the mahr [an amount in an Islamic marriage paid by the husband to the wife before the marriage] and the nafaqa [an obligation of material support for the wife and children in an Islamic marriage]. After that I decided to hold a party and invite my female relatives and friends. It was an important turning point for me,” says Salman, who is still in her 20s and who was married for three years.
She did not have a cake at her party but she did get her hair and makeup done. At the party, an Iraqi song which is often played at weddings, was on high rotate.
“When I divorced, it was my friends that actually suggested I hold a party,” says Sara Haider, 31, whose husband used to abuse her. “I always wanted to leave him because I knew I would have more freedom, even if I was on my own. I really liked the idea so I bought a dress as colourful as the life I hope to live,” she says poetically. “And at the party we all danced to a song where the singer advises singles not to marry!”
As a newly liberated woman, Haider really likes the idea that more divorcees are holding parties. “It challenges the idea in Arab society that divorced women are rejects,” she explains. “It is a sign that we can challenge our husbands, and that we can live without men.”