As the courts contemplate the restoration of Section 7 of the Christian Divorce Act, a backgrounder on Christian men and women’s struggle to get out of undesirable marriages
Sarah*, a Christian resident of Lahore, has been married for nearly 30 years. Yet, since the early days of her marriage and despite being a hands-on mother of three, she is the sole bread earner of the family. Her husband John*, is very much alive, but partly unable and partly unwilling to work, since he is an addict of the killer drug, heroin. Although having contemplated separation many times, Sarah continues to live with and support her husband and her children, thanks to cultural pressures, but also because religion exhorts her to maintain the bond until her death.
Traditionally, Christians believe that marriage is an indissoluble and lifelong union ‘for better or for worse’, as stated in their marriage vows. According to the Bible, a marriage cannot be dissolved on any ground other than adultery.
In Pakistan, Christian matrimonial issues are governed by colonial-era laws such as the Christian Marriage Act 1872, the Christian Divorce Act 1869 and the Succession Act 1925. After the creation of Pakistan, Christians were allowed to follow the UK laws in matrimony-related issues. The UK Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, ‘took marriage out of the jurisdiction of the church and gave civil courts the authority to adjudicate on all disputes related to it’, while the UK Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 provided that a petition could be filed for divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown of marriage. This went beyond adultery and desertion, also allowing divorce in the case ‘that the respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent’.
This law was applicable in Pakistan until the rule of Ziaul Haq.
After General Ziaul Haq assumed power as the President of Pakistan in 1978, he ordered a review of the prevailing laws of the country. "Law makers studied the laws and along with other revisions, it was proposed that Section 7 be removed from the Christian Divorce Act, as it was not in conformity, in fact derogatory to the Bible,’ said Saif ul Mulook, Supreme Court Advocate.
Thus Federal Laws (Revisions & Declaration) Ordinance 1981 was introduced, which among many controversial amendments repealed Section 7 that had allowed the invocation of the British law. The law now grants divorce to Christian couples on four grounds stated in Section 10, all four of which mention adultery.
"Christians in Pakistan sometimes have to convert to Islam, only to be able to divorce their spouse and marry someone else. But those who convert for remarriage or any other purpose cannot return to their Christian faith, as Muslims then declare them wajib ul qatal (worthy of death)," noted Cecil Chaudhry, Executive Director of Catholic Bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).
In a 2015 case filed in the Lahore High Court for the restoration of Section 7, Marry Gill, a PML-N MPA, expressed concern that the clause was removed to force Christians to convert to Islam, and this has been the practice since.
Many Christian women in Pakistan remain trapped in abusive marriages as they cannot separate from their husbands without alleging and proving charges of adultery, or else converting to Islam. In less severe cases, where the husband and wife agree on a lack of understanding with each other, the couple is still forced for the rest of their lives to fulfil vows which were taken at the time of their marriage.
In May 2016, Safdar Masih of Bahawalpur beat his wife with a club and then strangled her to death. The autopsy report of Safia Bibi, a mother of five, confirmed that her husband had been violent towards her for years. She had approached a lawyer thrice to appeal for divorce, but was unable to do so because her situation was non-compliant with the law.
Ironically, a week before Safia’s death, the Lahore High Court had reinstated Section 7 of the Christian Divorce Act. The appeal for this restoration had been filed by Amin Masih, who although wanting to divorce his wife, did not want to hurt her dignity by making a false charge of adultery against her. While testifying that Ziaul Haq had not consulted the Christian community before repealing Section 7, the clergy belonging to the leading church denominations in the country stated that "no-one can change any verse or order of the Holy Bible," to which the then Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Shah answered in his judgment that "this case is not about examining the biblical or canonical law", also noting that "the Christian political and ecclesiastical leadership had never opposed Section 7 when it was on the statute book prior to 1981."
He gave examples of Christian majority countries which have statutes allowing for no-fault divorce, or divorce by consent, where parties are not required to prove fault or grounds for divorce other than a showing of irreconcilable differences, or an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. He also mentioned that India has brought about the Indian Divorce (Amendment) Act, 2001 which expanded the scope of divorce on grounds other than adultery.
With the restoration of Section 7, Amin Masih was able to divorce his wife without alleging her of adultery. His advocate Sheraz Zaka confirmed it. This led to a debate within the Christian community. In a meeting of the Punjab government’s Minority Advisory Council held on June 2, 2016, Punjab Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Minister Khalil Tahir Sindhu said he believed marriage to be a religious contract and, therefore, did not believe in divorce. "Can a court touch the law ordained by our faith?" he asked the Christian clergy present at the meeting. Many clerics responded that the biblical framework did not allow divorce.
Based on this belief, less than six months after the restoration of Section 7, Emmanuel Francis, a resident of Faisalabad through his counsel Advocate Saiful Malook challenged the decision of Chief Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah. "The amendments made in the Federal Laws (Revision & Declaration) Ordinance 1981 by Ziaul Haq were reviewed in 1988 and it was maintained that Section 7 in the Christian Divorce Act should remain repealed," explained Saif ul Mulook. "How can a single bench restore the clause when it was not a part of the relevant law?" questioned the advocate.
Despite a split opinion at the time when proceedings continued in the earlier case for restoration of Section 7, Shunila Ruth, an MPA from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, tabled Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill 2017 in the Punjab Assembly which sought to provide multiple grounds for divorce. Last October, a delegation of Christian leaders, women activists and human rights campaigners discussed new provisions and a new bill with Federal Minister for Human Rights, Mumtaz Ahmed Tarar.
"Many clauses need to be changed in the centuries old Marriage and Divorce Act for Christians in Pakistan," said Cecil Chaudhry. "Minimum marriageable age of 18 has now been proposed instead of 13 for girls and 16 for boys. Also, the clauses related to custody, registration, separation, inheritance, anomaly etc. are all outdated. We have also agreed to expand reasons for divorce and have proposed them in the new bill," Chaudhry explains.
Although the federal minister promised to forward the proposed bill to the federal Law Ministry for vetting and tabling in the National Assembly, the move is yet to be made. "We regularly send follow-up letters to the ministry, but there is no response. It seems that the bill is not in the priority list of the government and we fear that because of the upcoming elections it will remain on the back-burner," laments Cecil Chaudhry. "The PML -N should proceed with tabling the bill, resolve matters of minorities and go with their head held high in the elections," suggests Peter Jacob, Executive Director and a senior member of the NCJP.
As the Christian community awaits progress in the tabling of the bill, legal experts are not very hopeful about the outcome. "As per the constitution of Pakistan, every citizen is allowed to live according to his or her religion. The state cannot intervene in this fundamental right nor can it take over any personal law which comes under a religious belief," says Saif ul Mulook. "Article 8 of the Constitution clearly states that any law derogatory to a fundamental right can be struck down," he says.
When asked about the comparative case of the Hindu Marriage Act enforced in Pakistan last year, which allows grounds for separation despite a stricter injunction in Hinduism against dissolving a marriage, Saif ul Mulook does not appear optimistic about it either. "If the Act is challenged in court by any member of the community, it would immediately be declared void. Similar fate is expected for the Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill, even if it gets approved," the advocate says.
Divisions within the community and a legal framework governed by Islamic rather than secular principles make this matter complicated for the Christian minority in Pakistan. But Asif Aqeel, a journalist and human rights activist belonging to the Christian community, is adamant that there is a way out.
"Christianity is a two thousand year old religion and it is getting reformed worldwide. In Pakistan, if a Christian woman is isolated by her husband, does the Church support her? There are many words of Jesus Christ which are meant for personal interpretation to enhance strength of character rather than a literal translation. Going against conscience is going against the spirit of Christianity. In the issue of separation for a Christian couple, the human rights framework should be considered," argues Asif Aqeel.
While human rights activists request the State to uphold the fundamental human right in favour of troubled Christian men and women, legal experts claim that the fundamental right of religious freedom cannot be superseded. However, if the practice of sati can be abolished in Pakistan despite the Hindu religion allowing it, and if forced conversions continue to threaten non-Muslims despite the state ordaining religious freedom, maybe a violation which upholds the dignity of a woman and promises a better life to a man could be allowed.
Whether it is against the spirit of a religion should be decided by its followers. The provision of a law would at least ensure a choice: whether to part ways amicably or to wait ‘until death do us part’.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.