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'Lunatic' divorce bill draws backlash in Pakistan

Community leaders shocked as federal cabinet supports nullification if either party is ‘an idiot or minor’

'Lunatic' divorce bill draws backlash in Pakistan

The Pakistani government has been widely condemned over the wording of its proposed law change for Christians seeking a divorce. (Shutterstock photo)

Pakistani church leaders and activists have slammed the latest draft bill on Christian matrimonial laws for using offensive and derogatory terms.

On Aug. 20 the federal cabinet approved the Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill 2019. One of its provisions states that among the grounds for divorce can be if “either party was a lunatic or idiot or a minor at the time of marriage.”

The bill also directs the court to act on the principles and rules of the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes in England. Similarly, it validates marriages only between Christian couples.

More than 50 community leaders, including Church of Pakistan pastors, Catholic activists and Salvation Army officials, denounced the flaws in the wording of the draft bill during an Aug. 26 consultation meeting in Lahore. The Center for Social Justice, (CSJ) an advocacy group for minorities, held two consultations to review the bill within six days of its approval.

“Referring to someone suffering from a psychiatric or psychotic disorder as an idiot is offensive and derogatory,” they declared in a joint statement. “This outdated provision should be replaced, saying instead that a divorce can take place ‘if either party suffers from a mental disorder of a serious nature at the time of marriage.’”

The statement also recommends omitting the “irrelevant” colonial rider, adding: “The divorce courts in England have different grounds for divorce than the proposed Christian Marriage and Divorce Act of 2019.”

Tackling a long-time problem

Both government and church committees have been negotiating for decades to update the laws relating to Christian conjugal conflicts covered by the Christian Marriage Act of 1872 and the Christian Divorce Act of 1869.

The law currently validates the marriage of a girl older than 13, a condition that conflicts, for example, with regional customs.

Two of Pakistan’s five provinces — Sindh and Punjab — have passed laws prohibiting child marriage, although Punjab allows girls to be married at 16, while Sindh has a minimum age of 18. The current family laws, applicable to Christians only, allow divorces on four grounds: adultery, conversion, second marriage and cruelty.

In 1981, military ruler General Zia ul Haq changed the law through an ordinance that required a Christian husband to charge his wife with adultery before he could seek divorce. He also had to prove it before divorcing her.

The first church seminar on Christian family laws and forced conversions was held in 1993 in the Diocese of Multan in the southern Punjab. The debate intensified in 2016 after Lahore High Court granted Christian couples the right to divorce for reasons outside of adultery.

The former federal minister for human rights, Kamran Michael, later met with leaders of different churches to solicit their opinion on two separate draft amendment bills concerning the aforementioned laws.

None of these drafts were presented in the current parliament, claims Peter Jacob, the Catholic director of CSJ.

“The process was delayed. Some, including the members of parliament, hold that divorce is in opposition to Christian teachings,” he told ucanews.com. “Marriage is a sacrament for the Church, while it is considered as a contract by the state. It was impossible for all theologians and denominations to agree on the draft.

“A civil law doesn’t need approval from all denominations, however. It is a public debate. The interpretations of different religions have damaged our society. Registration of marriages, even if one or both of the couples is a Christian, will promote interfaith harmony. The latest recommendations aim at strengthening lives of Christian families and ensuring their dignity.”

According to human rights lawyer Nadeem Anthony, there is a trend of Christians converting to Islam to seek divorce.

“Most of the divorces are one-sided,” he said. “The divorce notices sent by court are mostly based on allegations of adultery and thus use derogatory language. Given the cultural sensitivities, the families of the bride prefer to stay silent.”

In September 2018, 16,000 divorce suits were filed in the city of Lahore alone. However there is no official record of Christian divorces specifically.   

According to Asad Jamal, a lawyer at Lahore High Court, the laws Britain created for Christians on the Indian subcontinent are now outdated.

Since 2001, Christian marriages in India can be dissolved if both parties file for a divorce by mutual consent. In 2006 the Law Commission of Bangladesh reviewed the Divorce Act and recommended the same for Christian spouses.

“The allegation of adultery to get divorce causes bitterness and creates complications in related matters like custody of children and division of property. Due to their financial position, men are in a much better position to manipulate women,” Jamal said.

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