Her hand shaking, Intisar Hassan Shabib signed the divorce paper. It said that Shabib had been accorded all of her rights, as per Iraq’s laws.
The truth was far from this. To finalize her divorce quickly, Shabib, 36, gave up her dowry, any alimony she was owed, her house and the gold that her husband bought her before the separation and later sold to buy a car.
By Kholoud al-Alamyry in Baghdad
“Our lawyers agreed that I needed to give up all my rights in order to finalize the divorce,” Shabib said. “My lawyer asked me not to mention what I gave up. So I lied in court. I had to get rid of a man who had been violent with me for years and who had caused me so much physical and psychological pain.”
Shabib is not alone. Every year thousands of Iraqi women give up all their rights when divorcing. The end result is that divorced women, who may not have family support, end up in very difficult situations, often homeless, penniless and not able to see their own children.
A questionnaire distributed to 50 divorce lawyers working in Baghdad courts, in Karkh and Rasafa, found that in 2021, just over half of all Iraqi women gave up their rights in order to finalize their divorce. This equalled 925 women out of 1,765 whose cases were covered by the questionnaire.
A person’s rights in the event of a divorce are covered by Iraq’s Personal Status Law. This says that a wife should receive alimony and that a woman’s dowry will be returned after the split. But the lawyers said that women often gave up everything, from their furniture to gold, to custody of their children. All of the 925 women who waved their rights were threatened or pressured in some way. Some were told they would be burned to death.
“One of my clients was told she and her children would be set alight if she didn’t give up her custody,” a Baghdad lawyer, Hind Aziz, noted. “She did give up custody in the end because she was afraid for her life and theirs.”
Stages to divorce
In general, there are a series of stages to a divorce case in Iraq that must be resolved in decisions before a separation can be finalized. Each of these stages can cause a delay, allow a husband to pressure the wife, or see a woman left without financial support.
The first stage decides whether the wife can claim alimony – that is, regular financial support for herself and her children – from the man she is divorcing. Later on, further hearings look into mutually owned property and the custody of children before finally ending in an official divorce.
Each of these stages usually costs between US$600 and US$1,000 to complete.
One of the most difficult stages examines whether the woman has been appropriately “obedient” to her husband. The sometimes-subjective definition of obedience gives the men opportunities to pressure their partner into giving up their rights.
Iraq’s personal status law “provides for a marital framework based on ‘reciprocal’ or ‘complementary’ rights – as opposed to ‘equal’ rights – between the two spouses, whereby in return for maintenance and protection from her husband, a wife is expected to obey him to a certain extent,” says a 2019 report, compiled for a meeting on CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
An Iraqi wife is not entitled to any alimony if “she leaves her husband’s home without his permission and without legitimate reason”. In divorce cases, this principle is often used by male partners to counter-sue claims of alimony. The woman must prove her obedience, or give up any financial support.
For example, Abeer Kamel Hassan, 33, won her alimony case. But then two months later, her husband filed a case against her for non-obedience, claiming she had left the house suddenly, four months earlier, and never returned.
Hassan says that her husband never told the court that they had divorced a year ago and that her husband himself had taken Hassan to her sister’s house.
“I confronted him with the facts and when he felt that the case was beginning to turn in my favour, he began to change his tone,” Hassan recounts.
In the end, Hassan’s case was moved to Baghdad, instead of Mosul where her husband lives. When the day of the hearing came, he never turned up in court in Baghdad and the case against Hassan for not obeying was dropped, she says.
Some of judges decide that husbands may pay back the dowry in installations because they have proven low income or other financial difficulties. As a result of the slow and paltry payments, lasting over years, the wives sometimes decide to simply give up on the money just so they can be free of the marriage.
‘The verdict graveyard’
Iraqi lawyers have nicknamed the legal department responsible for adjudicating divorce judgments “the verdict graveyard”. While a ruling may be made in favor of one or other of the divorcing parties, the department never really enforces it properly, they say.
Sometimes divorce is mediated by a couple’s tribal leaders, before the law courts look at the case.
Amani Hamid Jabbar ended up giving up all her rights thanks to a divorce mediated by tribal leaders. She gave back her dowry – two kilograms of gold – as well as the household’s furnishings and gifts her husband had given her during the three years they were married.
“We were divorced by a tribal settlement before we even entered the court,” Jabbar explains. “In that settlement, my husband requested I return what he had spent on me in the past years of our marriage.”
Jabbar said she spent five years going in and out of courtrooms to try and get back some of what she had lost in the tribal settlement. Of three cases she managed to bring to court, she won two. Firstly, she was able to claim alimony from her husband and secondly she won her case about obedience. However, in the final, legal divorce, she was unable to get anything back and ended up waiving all her rights, just to finalize the separation.
Her husband had a gambling problem and also beat her, she said. Once she ended up in hospital.
“I was married for three years but I spent almost twice as long in courts to obtain a divorce,” Jabbar says. “But I consider myself lucky because we did not have children. Otherwise I would never have been able to get rid of my husband. He would have hounded me for the rest of my life.”
Lawyers easily swayed
Lawyers can also become part of the problem, divorcees note.
Some just want to be done with a divorce case and encourage women to give up their rights and property in exchange for a final divorce.
“This is unacceptable,” Baghdad lawyer Alia al-Husseini, who mainly works on criminal cases, says. “Because a lawyer should be acting on behalf of their clients. The first advice I always give to women at my practice is not to give up anything. I would feel like I’d lost the case if the wife gave up everything for the divorce .”
Another lawyer Hussein al-Darraji believes there is a need to better educate the lawyers themselves about women’s rights. Most divorce cases tend to be handled by younger lawyers, al-Darraji says, and they either haven’t had enough experience or want to wrap up what appear to be simple cases quickly. They want a quick success, he maintains.
There is also immense social pressure on Iraqi women who decide to divorce. Even though Iraqi society is becoming less conservative about this issue – especially in bigger cities like Baghdad – it can still be problematic for females.
Often there is pressure on the women from their husband’s families or even their husband’s distant relatives. They might send members to tell the women to waive their rights, or to return to the marital home for fear of damaging the husband’s family’s reputation and honor.
Sometimes this pressure consists of trying to ruin the woman’s reputation, accusing them of behavior that is unacceptable in a conservative society.
This is even harder for women who may have been under age when they are married. As young women they are particularly susceptible to this kind of pressure. A Baghdad lawyer, Majid Jarri, said this was particularly true if the girls were divorced via tribal settlements as opposed to in courts, something that is more common because of the fact that they married too young in the first place.
Enas Hadi, a researcher into psychology and a women’s rights activist, says that this kind of pressure can have a long-lasting impact. Iraqi women lose confidence in the law, she says. “Once the woman gets divorced, she starts to feel that she is a victim because she gave up her legitimate rights, and this gradually weakens her self-confidence.”
Threats of violence, sexual blackmail
Iraqi divorcees talk of many different ways in which they were threatened or pressured and even extorted.
Dima Ahmed Sadoun got divorced three months ago. The 27-year-old, who doesn’t want to use her real name, recounts how her husband would take a picture of her half naked in their bedroom.
“He would keep the pictures on his phone,” she says. “When I asked for a divorce because I knew of many affairs he had had, he accused me of adultery and used the pictures he’d taken to make it look as though I had.” He presented the pictures in court as part of the divorce case.
There have also been cases where a man who works for, or is involved with, local security forces uses this power to harass his partner.
An event in December 2021 in the Jableh district in Babel governorate, south of Baghdad, shocked Iraqis and made headlines around the world.
The husband of a would-be divorcee was in the military. He gave his superiors information that his father-in-law was sheltering terrorists in the house and arranged to storm the premises. In the ensuing raid, 20 members of the wife’s family were killed.
“Iraq’s High Judicial Council said in a statement that a relative of one of the victims provided ‘false information as a result of family disputes’,” Human Rights Watch confirmed afterwards.
Lamia Ali, 36, says she had her own money before marrying her husband, who was a high ranking army officer. The woman, who wanted to use a false name, said upon divorcing, her husband demanded she give him her savings.
“I had already waived my rights,” Ali said, “but he demanded US$20,000 to agree to a final settlement. Then he sent a man with a gun to my house on a motorcycle to threaten me.”
Ali said she called her ex-husband the same day and told him, he could have US$13,000. He agreed and the divorce was finalized, although Ali never told the judge about what had happened.
“My ex-husband would have killed me after leaving the courtroom, if I had,” she says.
Of course, not all Iraqi women waive their rights. Some fight to get back their property.
This is how Amal Hassan decided to proceed. She was married but soon after the wedding, discovered that her husband was homosexual. She left him and returned to her family home after three months, still a virgin.
Her first lawyer advised her to give up her dowry of US$10,200. But she refused. “I won a first case for alimony,” “Hassan recounts,” and then I went to his house with a member of the court to collect my clothing and jewellery. When I got there, I realized half of my things were missing. But I couldn’t blame anybody because it was a very large family. So after my lawyer asked me to waive my rights to my dowry, I simply refused.”
Hassan says she doesn’t care if her husband’s family have to pay her back in installations, she’s not giving up. And, she says, she is trying to find another lawyer who will take her case further.
Saja Hamid Ali is another woman who won’t give up her rights. She was married to her husband for a decade and he beat her regularly. Her patience finally ran out in June 2020, during the pandemic lockdown, and she left.
Five months later, she filed a case for alimony, which she won. Her husband filed a case against hers saying she had not been obedient, in order to try and force Ali to waive the alimony. He refused to come to an agreement and granted her final divorce unless she allowed him to pay only child care.
Ali says she won’t give up even though the case has dragged on for a year. “I may need two or three years but I will not allow him to take away my rights, after all the years of suffering I had to deal with, living with him,” she said.
Better education needed
The women that Al Menassa spoke with about this said it was very difficult to fight, and that often they were only able to continue on with their court cases because of the support of their families.
Samir al-Janabi, a doctor and sociology researcher, explains that Iraqi society has changed a lot over the past decades and that people have become much more accepting of the idea of divorced and divorced women. If a husband is seen to have done wrong, then families are almost supportive of their female relative’s desire to divorce.
A lot of Iraqi lawyers believe that there needs to be more information available to women considering divorce. A lot of potential divorces don’t realise they don’t need to waive their rights, they say.
“Most women are ignorant of their legal rights,” Hanaa Edwar agrees, head of the civil society organization, Al Amal, and a long time campaigner for women’s rights in Iraq. “We should intensify our activities in this area, in cooperation with judicial authorities, and spread more awareness of the law.”
Her organization has previously launched campaigns on social media around child custody and similar initiatives could be undertaken in this area, she concludes.