Women in Religious Court

Women’s access to justice requires a broad horizon of knowledge which understands the reasons why women sue for divorce. Many people have asked, including the Minister of Religious Affairs, Lukman Syaifuddin, when we went to report the results of research by Rumah KitaB on child marriage last April: Why is the number of women who file for divorce so high?

This is the story of Nurani (not her real name). We met her by chance in the hearing room of the Religious Court (Mahkmah Syariyah) in Lhoksukun, North Aceh, in April 2014. It was 10 in the morning, and the waiting room at the Lhoksukun Religious Court was already packed. Four long rows with five seats each were already filled. Extra seats had been provided, but they were all filled as well.

Most of those waiting were women, nearly all of whom were still young. There were only three men: two were there for an inheritance case, and the other was an elderly man who was being sued for divorce by his wife, also quite elderly. The rest were women who were suing for divorce.

In fact, nearly all the people sitting in the waiting room were women in pursuit of a divorce. One woman, escorted by her daughter who was also an adult, was there for a divorce hearing. According to the daughter, her mother could no longer bear to face her father, who had severe anger issues and often physically beat her mother.

Squeezed in among the many people waiting for their hearings was Nurani. She is from the Mantang Baru village in Lapang Lhokseumawe district. Nurani had just turned 17 years old. She was eight months pregnant at the time.

Nurani was suing her husband for divorce because he did not fulfill his responsibilities. She is the first daughter, the second of three siblings. Her parents are farmers and fishers. She had come to court with her mother. Though he was not at sea at the time, Nur’s father did not accompany his daughter since he felt socially awkward. Nur’s older brother is married and lives with his wife in another town, while her sister Nurlela, 13 years old, had only graduated from elementary school and was working as a nanny in Malaysia.

Nurani had completed her education up until the second year of junior high school, but as she went into her third year, she fell seriously ill. Every night she threw a tantrum and ran a fever. Many believed she was sick due to a curse. Nurani is quite beautiful; many were attracted to her, and she told us she had had to refuse men who wanted to go out with her more than a few times.

Eventually she was cured by a local shaman. This shaman forced Nurani into marrying him. He claimed that if she did not, she would stay ill due to her curse. Not long after her treatment process, they were married with the promise that he would pay jeulame for their household furnishings plus a dowry of 10 mayam (1 mayam = 3.3 grams) of gold, of which only 3 mayam had been paid.

> On the second day after the marriage, Nurani was brought to the home of her in-laws. She felt as if she was being treated as a house-maid. For two months, Nurani lived at her in-laws’ house. Entering the Haj season, she had an excuse to go home for meugang, to celebrate Idul Adha. Before she went, Nur tried to collect the dowry she was owed by her husband, as well as the jeulame. Not only was she not paid, she was sent away with curses from her husband and her in-laws, two months pregnant.

After she had been at home for a few days, the village chief (known in Aceh as geucik) came with a message from her husband that he had divorced her. Nurani continued to demand her jeulame and the rest of her dowry. She went back to her in-laws’ house to make her demands, but instead, her ex-husband slapped her. And there was another woman at the house: his new wife.

And so, eight months pregnant, Nurani went to court along with her mother. She demanded an official divorce so that her marital status would be clear. If home is truly heaven for women, it does not make sense to others if they sue for divorce. This phenomenon of an increasing number of women in the religious courts is a clear indication of how many men are not fulfilling their responsibilities as husbands.

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