Divorcing in Nigeria as a Muslim woman

Muslim divorce

The topic of divorce remains largely taboo across cultures in Nigeria.

Endings are generally thorny things to happen to a person or thing we cherish, they are thornier yet when they happen to marriage – an institution that remains revered in a country like Nigeria that purports to care for family values.

It is doubly taboo in Hausa-Muslim societies where marriages are by and large strictly solemnised religiously. The same rules of dissolution don’t apply to these marriages as they do to court registered marriages, which are still difficult to divorce one’s way out of.

This difficulty – many on the decision-making table in Nigeria – believe is important to maintain in order to protect children and the sanctity of marriage so people don’t enter and exit it willy-nilly.

What happens when you are a Hausa-Muslim woman who desperately needs to get a divorce, is in a marriage that isn’t court documented, and several other complications like two disapproving parents who didn’t bless your marriage of 15 years, to begin with?

The subject of this interview who went through that exact hell shares with us, with a strong demand for anonymity.

What will your answer have been to “on what grounds are you filing for divorce?” had you got the chance to answer that question?

Maltreatment, breach of trust, mental and emotional abuse, economic abuse, and physical abuse. The last was the reason I became desperate to get out of that marriage quickly, but I couldn’t find a quick exit that wasn’t messy. I chose messy.

Before we get to hear about the messy part, how did all this betrayal happen and you hadn’t already left at maltreatment?

That’s the thing, isn’t it? These things don’t happen all at once, they start small. Also they rarely ever happen in a vacuum, there is always something the abuser is leveraging on and in my case, he was leveraging on my parents’ disapproval of our relationship and my insistence on solemnising it regardless. I was young, idealistic and deeply in love with him and the future I could see with him.

My ex-husband was an affluent older man with one ex-wife and a new bride when I met him. I on the other hand was 20 years old and fascinated by this man who was 28 years older than me at the time.

My mother immediately disapproved when she found out. I was living with my older sister at the time, I had moved in with her as her companion when she got married 6 years earlier. It is a thing we do in Hausa society, assigning a younger person as a companion to newlyweds.

She immediately ordered that I be returned home so she could talk sense into me.

She tried, God knows she did, but I had coconut head, I still do, so of course, nothing worked. She did something that forever ruined any chance at redemption for our relationship, she ‘washed her hands off me.’

I returned to my sister’s and resumed marriage plans. He knew my parents disapproved and reassured me all the way into my matrimonial bed that he will do everything to make up for it.

I shared my dreams with him, which were quite modest:

  1. To finish my diploma which I’d just begun.
  2.  To get a job or start a business to support myself and live happily ever after.

He enthusiastically approved, and then went ahead to put a baby in me within a month. Thereafter he started showing excessive concern for my well-being.

He made me defer school for a year to “ensure I have a safe pregnancy.”

He made sure to let me know he was doing it for my well-being because he saw his first wife have multiple miscarriages because she couldn’t sit still. I’ll learn the truth later that she miscarried because he was constantly beating her.

All this while I was being an obedient wife.

I kept the house tic tac fresh all day every day – this big house that has too much space in the middle as if it was designed by a demented hoarder who doesn’t know how to put his boon to good use.

I washed his car every day before he went to work.

He never had to take any of his clothes to the laundromat after we got married, I made sure I washed and ironed his clothes every other day.

These things, he didn’t see as something that could cause me a miscarriage. I began to put two and two together after I gave birth to my son.

What finally opened your eyes?

He reneged on his promise. That’s what.

After I had rested for 5 months post-partum I told him I was ready to return to school, he almost brought the roof down with rage. I saw the person hidden from me all that time for the first time, and I was scared he would kill me.

He insisted I would be endangering his child if I started going out with him, my own child. This despite showing him all my sisters who have done very well children notwithstanding.

I cried out then to the only person who I knew had my back, my sister. She came to the house and had very strong words with him, but women are not respected you see, so he yelled at her and threatened to release his security dog on her.

He told her if she ever came to the house again he isn’t responsible for whatever happens to her next. She left agitated, and he beat me for the first time that night.

Wow

Yes. Wow. From there on out I was a different person. I went through the motions of daily life, but everything was a haze for years.

My parents still wanted nothing to do with me and my dysfunctional marriage. My sister appealed to them to save me and move for a dissolution. It could be arranged with their help as my guardians. The alternative was for me to do it but I was in a hostage situation. My mom is not easily forgiving however, it is where I inherited my coconut head. She held out for years. I still wonder how she did it, and don’t see myself ever forgiving her for it.

How did you get out?

As unbelievable as it may sound, I walked out.

My girls inspired me to choose that option.

Oh, by the way, amid that isolation and terror I had two more babies, both incredibly beautiful girls.

The thought that I may end up raising them in an abusive home drove me like a mad person to plan my escape and ultimately theirs.

I pilfered from the home upkeep money and saved for months. I was in touch with my immediate older sister via mobile through a kind neighbour who knew my situation and helped in whatever way she could. We planned carefully so that she could come to the house and help me with the kids when I escaped.

The day came, and like a movie where a perfectly laid plan is shot to hell by the antagonist showing up last minute, my husband returned home last minute.

We were making for the cab my sister brought, a child in one arm while I held the hand of the other with the firstborn trailing behind me, my sister had our last bags in her hand and this man zoomed in.

He had barely stopped the car before he jumped out howling. We made a run for it. I escaped with only the child in my hand, my youngest.

This is intense and insane! Where was the police in all this?

Bought and paid for. This is a well-connected rich man in Kano in the early 2000s. He was well-respected too.

In fact, he sent the law at me. Accused me of kidnapping my own child and when he saw that wouldn’t hold water he smeared my name by accusing me of theft. He told everyone who cared to listen that I had stolen from him for years, plenty of people cared to listen. This was a big man talking after all.

I squatted with my sister, a 30+ single mother with only secondary school education, fast-dwindling job prospects thanks to my then-separated husband’s smear campaign and a mouth to feed.

My sister helped in every way she could.

I appealed to his friends to have him divorce me and let me get on with my life, he could easily do that. Islamically a man can easily divorce his wife, unlike a Muslim woman who has to involve the courts. He refused to listen.

In fact, he promised to keep me tied in that marriage for as long as he lived. I had bed my time before when my life was in danger, I knew I could bid my time once more. He was not getting any younger after all. So I waited.

And?

He gave in after 4 years of separation. By that time I’d been to my kids’ schools to see them every day of the week, they understood the situation, the real truth and not the one about me being a thirsty whore who wanted to go on a fornication spree that their father told them.

I had put myself through a distance learning program to get the diploma I always wanted while working as a cleaning lady in a firm not too far from my sister’s place where I was crashing.

Then I heard he had fallen sick and I went to appeal to him one more time to let me have my other daughter so they aren’t burdened with her care. It was the last time I saw him alive, and it was the day he finally gave me the divorce I’d been asking for for years.

Major weirdo vibes. A criminal really.

A criminal and aware of it. Proud even.

It may interest you to know he partly released me because he didn’t want to die still married to me because that would have made me entitled to inherit part of his wealth. I didn’t care at all, I was just relieved it finally happened and I didn’t have to work for years saving in the hope that I could eventually buy my freedom. Which is what seeking divorce often leads to for married Muslim women.

A sharia court judge can determine upon examining our case that yes you deserve to be granted a divorce, but also put the man into consideration because he will be without a wife. So you can be asked to pay the dowry of his replacement marriage. A friend had done so to my knowledge, but she had the means.

This is a tale for the ages.

It was not easy to recount, to be honest.

If it puts a ray of light on the darkness of it overall, I got my hands on the wealth he wanted to deny me thanks to my children.

Flexing his money even in death gives me great pleasure.

I’m not sorry to that man.

Thank you.

No, thank you for sharing.

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