For a Pakistani Christian like Shameela Masih, divorcing her abusive husband meant two choices—both nearly as bad as staying in the marriage.
“I have to prove adultery allegations against him,” said Masih, a 34-year-old mother of two. “The other option I have is to convert to Islam.”
Masih recently filed for divorce from a husband she said “frequently beats me up” and a mother-in-law who she said burned her leg with coal.
But under the majority-Muslim country’s laws, she must produce a witness who would testify to committing adultery with her husband. As a result, she’s now reluctantly planning to renounce her faith.
“Converting is the easiest way out,” she said. “My family tells me that they will disown me as a Muslim, but I don’t have a choice.”
Masih is one of thousands of Christians in Pakistan who have converted to Islam to divorce their spouses under laws stemming from the British colonial period, when traditional morals held sway.
Now Pakistani officials are considering revising the law to make it easier for couples to part ways.
“There are so many things in the existing 19th-century Christian Marriage Act that need to be revised and updated to stop the exploitation of people and protect the human rights,” said Kamran Michael, the federal minister for human rights who is spearheading the drive for the legislation.
The law grants divorces to Christian couples on four grounds: adultery, conversion, marriage to another or cruelty. But proving adultery or cruelty is tough, especially in Pakistan, where adultery is a crime, and the stigma against domestic violence is weak in many parts of the country. Christians comprise less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s population of 189 million.
Muslims, on the other hand, can easily obtain a divorce for a variety of reasons, including irreconcilable differences.
Formerly, Pakistan’s laws on divorce mirrored those in Britain. But in the early 1980s, then-military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq restored older laws from the colonial period that applied to Christians divorcing. For Muslims, he left revised laws from the 1960s intact.
“The current law on Christian divorce undermines the dignity of women,” said Fauzia Viqar, who chairs the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women. “Many Christian women are left in marriages where they are suffering cruelty by husbands without any relief from the state.”
The law also puts needless stress on couples, said would-be divorcees.
“I want to divorce my wife amicably without charging her of adultery,” said Emanuel Anthony, 29, a Christian street vendor in Lahore who has been married for five years. “She is the mother of my child. Why should I assassinate her character in public?”
His wife, Nabila, agreed.
“We have been separated for a year now. There is an understanding between us that we are not compatible and want different things from life,” said the 25-year-old Christian who teaches mathematics at a Catholic school. “I don’t understand what the issue is, and why a law should govern my right to divorce.”
Slated to be unveiled in Parliament in the coming weeks, the new law would expand the grounds for divorce and separate it from the Christian religion. Couples would be able to marry by registering with the government and then solemnizing their nuptials in the church if they so choose, said human rights ministry officials.
“Pakistani Christian couples would be able to divorce amicably without hurtling adultery accusations or converting to another religion,” said Haroon Sulaiman, a family lawyer in Lahore. “This will give the persecuted minority some relief.”
The Catholic Church opposed the changes.
“Marriage is a lifelong and indissoluble union for better or for worse in Christianity – you cannot just amend the laws of God,” said Catholic Bishop James Mathew. “Marriage is a sacrament, not a contract. This change is to defame our religion. Supporting the changes is like going against the Bible.”
Masih said Christian leaders like Mathew can overlook her and other women because they weren’t married.
“No one cares about us, we are left at the mercy of the Muslims and Christians alike,” she said. “Once in power, they don’t do anything for us. The Christian leaders are more worried about church politics instead of helping poor people like us.”