BAGHDAD // Divorce is becoming increasingly common in Iraq, according to lawyers and academics, although there is no consensus as to what lies behind this new trend. There are no official divorce statistics published by the government, but anecdotal evidence suggests marriages are failing at a greater rate than in the past. "We used to see about 100 divorces a month, but for some time now we've been having more than 150 a month," said Issam Aliam al Nouiami, a lawyer who works at the court in Karradah, one of the main places dealing with such matters in Baghdad. "That is a significant rise and it must be having an impact on society."
In nearby Karkh court, Haider al Gazale, another lawyer, said the situation had become a "big problem" and new laws were needed to safeguard the rights of women. "In divorce cases Iraqi women find it hard to ensure their rights are protected and we need to have new legislation to ensure they are properly defended," Mr al Gazale said. "The divorce rate is increasing and it seems to be mainly men divorcing their wives for trivial reasons."
Mr al Gazale believes widening financial hardships, coupled with rising aspirations, are the root cause. "There are young men and women with college degrees and they want to marry, get a good job, build a family life. But there is no work, there are few opportunities and that puts a breaking strain on the marriage in the early days. "Men then want a divorce ... and it is usually the woman who does not get her full rights."
Under Saddam Hussein, the dictator who was removed from power in 2003, Iraqi women enjoyed some of the most progressive legal protection in the Middle East, including minimum age limits on marriage and clear rights to alimony payments and custody over children. In practice many of those laws were, however, violated, especially in rural areas where tribal customs often meant that girls would be married below the minimum legal age of 18 years.
Since the US-led invasion that toppled the old regime, women's rights nosedived together with all human rights, as the security situation spiralled out of control. Many women would stay in their homes for safety and even secular or non-Muslim women would often wear Islamic headscarves to avoid unwanted attention - and possible trouble - in the street. Survival was more of a priority than divorce. Some commentators have seen the rise in divorce rates as an indication that women are once again asserting their rights and their independence, as the security situation stabilises.
"Just because divorce is becoming more common does not necessarily mean that women are always victims," said Karima Hamid, a social researcher and women's rights advocate in Baghdad. "In the past women had low status and could easily get trapped in unhappy marriages because they had no alternative. "If they divorced, they would face an uncertain financial future, the community would view them harshly. What we might be seeing are signals that women are more assertive and confident in their ability to cope alone, that it is better to have no husband than a bad husband."
Fagriyah Ahmed, a 36-year-old mother of three, fits that description. A teacher in the upscale Mansour district of the Iraqi capital, she said she divorced her husband after tiring of his drunkenness. "My husband used to take my salary and go out to clubs drinking while I'd be left at home without enough money to properly feed my three sons," she said. "Now with my salary and with money I earn from private tutoring, I am able to give my family a good life without that man.
"Things have been better for me and my sons since the divorce. I am in a stronger position and I don't need anyone to take responsibility for me." A Baghdad-based sociologist, Bassam al Darraji, said Iraqi women were less willing to tolerate living in poor conditions than in the past, in part because they had been exposed to modern communications and, via satellite television, had seen how the better-off live in other parts of the world.
But he insisted that cases such as Mrs Ahmed's were the exception rather than the rule, and that in most instances the women were the ones to suffer. "A large number of divorces these days are men dropping their wives because they are not in a financial position to bear the burden of looking after a family," he said. "If the divorce happens through the state court it is better in terms of ensuring some kind of respect for women's rights, but in many cases people just get a religious divorce."
Iraqi laws and customs mean that a couple typically have their separation made by a religious figure, who issues a ruling on who gets custody of the children and how any financial assets are divided. That ruling must go before a civil court where a judge checks that the cleric has been fair, in accordance with Islamic or Christian teachings. Campaigners for women's rights, however, say that even if a case does go before the court, judges are often biased towards the man or rife corruption makes fair rulings almost unheard of. The extra costs of going to court also mean that many poorer families will skip that stage altogether and simply do as the cleric says.
Mr al Gazale, said he expected divorce rates to continue to climb, and that women would suffer unless tighter new laws were introduced and enforced. "Divorce is becoming a bigger problem in Iraqi society; it's a dangerous thing that threatens the community," he said. "I think the future will bring more divorces and the negative effect will be concentrated on women unless we quickly see practical actions designed to produce practical solutions."