Academic journal article Africa

'There Is No Stranger to Marriage Here!': Muslim Women and Divorce in Rural Zanzibar

Academic journal article Africa

'There Is No Stranger to Marriage Here!': Muslim Women and Divorce in Rural Zanzibar

Article excerpt


In Zanzibar, many cases in rural Islamic courts involve disputes about whether or not a divorce has taken place outside of court. Zanzibari men have the right to divorce their wives unilaterally through repudiation; and, because many such divorces take place out of the wife's presence, women interpret certain structural events associated with divorce as divorce even when there is no evidence of lawful repudiation. By going to court, women want to legitimize the events of divorce with a receipt of registered divorce. Although the Islamic judge will not validate alleged divorces without proof of repudiation, he does not dismiss the cases as simple misunderstandings. Rather, he stresses the preservation of the marriage through reframing the cases as disputes about marital rights and obligations. Women acknowledge this shift and move to assert their rights to request better maintenance or a court-ordered divorce.


Dans les tribunaux islamiques ruraux de Zanzibar, un grand nombre d'affaires portent sur la question de savoir si un divorce a eu lieu ou non en dehors du tribunal. Les Zanzibariens ont le droit de divorcer de leurs epouses unilateralement par repudiation et, un grand nombre de ces divorces etant prononces en l'absence de l'epouse, les femmes interpretent comme un divorce certains evenements structurels associes au divorce, meme lorsqu'il n'existe aucune preuve de repudiation legitime. En se rendant au tribunal, les femmes demandent a legaliser les evenements de divorce par un document d'attestation de divorce. Si le juge islamique ne valide pas les divorces pretendus sans preuve de repudiation, il ne les rejette pas pour autant en les qualifiant de simples malentendus. Au lieu de cela, il souligne l'importance de preserver le mariage en requalifiant les litiges de differends lies aux droits et obligations maritaux. Les femmes en prennent acte et poussent pour faire valoir leurs droits a une meilleure pension alimentaire ou a un divorce prononce par ordonnance du tribunal.


Many disputes in rural Zanzibari Islamic courts concern whether or not a divorce bas taken place outside of court. Zanzibari men have the right to divorce their wives unilaterally through repudiation without the approval of the wife or the court. The wife need not be present at the episode of repudiation for it to be legally valid, and it is therefore common for men to divorce their wives while away from them. As a result, women often rely on the structural events of divorce rather than an actual statement of repudiation as evidence of the end of a marriage. These structural events are the prominent experiences that a rural Zanzibari woman undergoes at the time of divorce. The most important are leaving her husband's home to return to her family and the removal of her marriage goods from her husband's home. Disputes about divorce arise when women want to remarry or when men ask their former wives to return to them and resume married life. While some women agree to return, others seek official validation for the alleged divorce in Islamic courts by requesting an official divorce receipt. This article examines women's divorce experience and analyses three court cases to demonstrate how disputes about alleged divorce arise and what happens when they are taken to court.

One of the cases was opened by Shindano, a woman about sixty years old, who came to court to ask for a receipt verifying that she had been divorced by her husband, Abu Bakr. She related her husband's many violations of his marital duties and the anguish he had caused her. She said he divorced her, but later he came to her home and announced that they were still married and demanded that she return to him. She said, 'He chased me out of his house, he got rid of all my vyombo (marriage goods) that were in the house and put them outside, and now he says that he didn't divorce me!' In court, the clerks asked her for Abu Bakr's written statement of repudiation as proof of divorce. …

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