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Divorce is on, marriage is off

By Mohamed Mukhtar
Sunday, November 04, 2007

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“I know that I am 25 years old. But what is the point of marrying if I am going to be divorced,” said Zamzam apprehensively, “I rather remain single instead of becoming a single mother with children tugging at my hum”

“Why will you become a single mother?” interrupted a worried voice which was coming from the other end of the telephone line. 

“Men are failing to be proper husbands,” Zamzam retorted anxiously.

“Marriage is a like a prize draw, you do not know what you will get,” the voice replied comfortingly.

“Grandma, tell that to my three friends. They were all married and divorced. Here, in London, unlike Somalia, marriage has been turned into revolving-door relationship,” said Zamzam in a state of hopelessness and with an apathetic voice.

“You know, in our culture, a great value is placed on women to bear children,” the voice responded quickly.

“What is the point of creating a dysfunctional family?” enquired Zamzam despondently.  

Zamzam’s worry shows marriage, the oldest human institution, is under threat. Britain has the highest divorce rate in Europe and the problem of the dysfunctional family is a serious matter. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2006, nearly 2500 couples divorced weekly, despite the increasing number of couples cohabiting.

Marriage breakdown is changing the social structure. Divorce is on, marriage is off. Lasting marriage is shrinking, brief marriage is swelling. Female-headed households are in, father-led families are out. Being single mother is normal; having a husband at hand is a bonus. Lonely fathers and overwhelmed mothers are everywhere, traditional families are nowhere. Step-fathers are growing, fathers are diminishing.

It seems that there is a higher divorce rate among the Somali community in Britain than the wider society although there are no divorce statistics available that endeavour to capture Somali divorcing couples. A report commissioned by the Government Office for London in 2003, noted, “The number of Somali single parent households is in some boroughs significantly higher than the national average.” Another report commissioned by the Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees in 2004 also observed the community’s higher divorce rate.

The soaring divorce rate is having a negative effect on the Somali community in Britain. Hawa Mohamed, a Somali researcher, has recently published a study which looked at the causes and dimensions of marriage breakdown. Some of her findings are in line with previous findings; some are thought provoking while others advance our understanding of the causes of marriage breakdown.

The study found financial pressure to be a major contributor of family breakdown. Finance puts pressure on any relationship and if the income of the household is low, financial worries put extreme pressure on the household’s relationships. The financial independence of women and men’s failings to be breadwinners upset the traditional financial arrangements. Being a breadwinner entails certain privileges but when a husband is no longer the financial source of the family, his status is no longer guaranteed. Dr Anthony Olden, of London’s Thames Valley University, says: ‘Women find that they now control the family finances because social welfare payments are channelled through them. This alters the relationship between them and their partners, particularly if the man is out of work’. Although the study established a correlation between women’s financial independence and increasing family breakdown it is not clear if those who split up are financially better off than when they were together. When a household with one low income splits into two, is the household better off or worse off financially? 

According to the study, khat is one of the leading factors for family breakdown. Khat is a natural stimulant from the Catha edulis plant chewed by Somalis. Chewing khat produces a mild euphoria that is less potent than cocaine or amphetamine. But to get to a feeling of bliss, a person needs to spend many hours chewing khat and that effects the person’s health, wealth, working hours, family and social relationships. Since a husband who chews khat cannot make himself available for household chores, his share goes to the wife and that compounds her work. Furthermore Khat claims part of the family’s income and time. Khat can cause sexual impotence.

The paper drew attention to men’s inability to change as another element that plays a part of marriage breakdown. Somali women have changed and adapted the new environment while men are still in denial about their status and role. Women argue that men make no effort to understand the new environment and seek refuge chewing khat. Men make a counterargument by saying that women surrender their own identities and try to impersonate all the customs and attitudes of British women.

The report noted how the empowerment of women is creating social change. The enhanced social position of women is evident by the replacements of two words: “Abti” with “Adeer” and “Habaryar” with “Eedo”. In English, the word ‘uncle’ means the brother of one's father or mother while ‘aunt’ means the sister of one's father or mother. In Somali, there are four words instead of two – two from the father’s side: ‘Adeer’, paternal uncle, and ‘Eedo’, paternal aunt. Two words from the mother’s side: ‘Abti’, maternal uncle and ‘Habaryar’, maternal aunt. In Somalia, children use mainly the words Adeer and Eedo when speaking with adults and that shows the dominant position of the father within the family. But in Britain, Somali children use the words Abti and Habaryar and that indicates the influential position of the mother within the household.  

The study found how lack of support puts an extra load on spouses. Not knowing how to access social provisions available in the local area and not having close relative nearby deprive families of the extra help be it financial, moral or practical that all families need.

Gender role is a highly contested issue. In Somalia, the role of women and men is clearly defined. Women have monopoly on household chores. In Britain, household tasks are negotiated. According to the research, Somali women do not want to maintain the exclusive right of undertaking household chores and want Somali men to participate.  Men are reluctant to do family duties such as cooking and cleaning and women consider that a raw deal. When this becomes a thorny issue, it affects the dynamics of the relationship and confrontation ensues.  

Religion is another element that the study found to be a crucial factor. The study noted how the community considers the increasing marriage breakdown as a result of families not practising Islamic teachings. Endurance and fortitude are important qualities for families and Islamic teachings underline their importance when one faces hardship and suffering. One is also expected to remain the same character in the midst of pain but that quality is in short supply nowadays.

Other factors that lead to marriage breakdown are the amount of time men spend talking about politics outside their homes and the money families send back to their families in Somalia and how the absence of effective communication is putting barriers between spouses. Lack of communication whether it is expressing emotional needs or dealing with day-to-day activities causes misunderstanding and resentment.  . 

The study touched on several socioeconomic factors that lead to marriage breakdown. However, it seems the study has focused on what happens after marriages are formed and has not explored how well-prepared men and women are to become husbands and wives. Marriage is about rights and responsibilities and if partners are not clear about their expected duties before taking the vows, their relationship will probably become a bumping one if it does not breakdown completely. Furthermore, the paper has investigated how men’s habits affect their relationships but failed to look into if women have habits that affect their relationships. The research also did not mention the effects of genital mutilation and whether psychosexual problems contribute to marriage breakdown.

Mohamed Mukhtar
London, UK
[email protected]

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