‘Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in the opening sentence of Anna Karenina, before adding: “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is tempting to make the same observation about marriages, especially unhappy ones, because of the rising rate of divorce in the UAE. They have increased by seven per cent between 2009 and 2011.
Can there be any one way in which to deal with this apparent rash of unhappy marriages? Does the state have a role and if so, what should it be? These questions are especially pertinent today, when Mariam Al Roumi, the Minister for Social Affairs, faces the Federal National Council (FNC). Ali Al Nuaimi, FNC member from Ajman, has said he wants to know what is being done to strengthen family cohesion and reduce divorce.
With the family considered – rightly – to be the cornerstone of life here, there is good reason to be concerned about breaking up. Divorce tends to be a symptom (rather than the disease) so it is worth asking if the rising number of failed marriages indicates something more profound than mere marital disharmony.
Does it reflect societal changes in the UAE? Is the greater participation of women in the workforce giving them new confidence and new expectations of their husband and family? Are the conditions of modern life less amenable to happy marriages? Is greater earning capacity giving people the opportunity to leave unhappy unions that they would once have endured? These are important questions, although they might be better addressed first by academics rather than the FNC debating chamber.
The government has a legitimate interest in ensuring happy unions because strong families mean a strong society. But as with the law on breastfeeding, the state has to tread carefully.
That said, experience suggests the state can play a beneficial role when it comes to divorce. While overall divorce rates are climbing, it fell by nine per cent in Abu Dhabi in the first quarter of this year. As The National reported, Emirati couples who contact the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department – a preliminary step to divorce – are referred to the Family Guidance Department. Its mediation service reconciles 79 per cent of the couples. Such techniques could help nationwide.