Thursday, 4 June 2009

Divorce online

The Times carried a headline on 4th June,09 in its women and life & style section titled "With this website, I thee divorce". It turned out to be a piece on websites available on the web to help and support those undergoing a divorce. It was not, as I thought at first, about a website at which one could divorce a spouse directly online. Although not exactly in the same vein, the use of technology to divorce hit the headlines about 6 years ago in Malaysia when a man divorced his wife merely by sending her an SMS. In that case, it was not just talking about a divorce. He divorced her by Short Messsaging Service, which was upheld by the religious authority that had jurisdiction over such matters. Public outcry by women's rights campaigners followed. The government said they would review this matter. The status, as my research turns out, is that the situation has not changed much in 2009 as it was in 2003. As late as August, 2008, divorce by SMS was still in the news although a senator was fined for using this method of declaring his intention to divorce.

In Dubai, divorce by SMS appears to be perfectly legal. Singapore, however, has as early as 2001 taken steps to prohibit the use of sms for the purposes of divorce.

The issue at hand seems to be a clash of interpretation on the use of a communication technology to declare one's intention to end a marriage. While I do not doubt that sending a SMS can be an uber impersonal way of saying something especially something as important as "I want a divorce", it is nevertheless, a communication of intent. The scary difference under islamic family law is that once that intention - the talaq - is uttered, it seals the divorce. What remains is merely the process of adjudication for alimony, child support and related matters. As far as it concerns the parties, they are divorced.

It is the effect of the finality of such an utterance which has led some countries in making it illegal to use SMS for the purposes of divorce. The potential for frivolity is there, where divorces - the real thing and not just the start of a process - can be achieved at a mere whim by sending a text message.

It is all too easy to blame technology for making it so easy to end something as sacred as a marriage. But let's not forget that the technology in question here, the SMS, is in essence a communication tool. It is the sender who typed that message and pressed the 'send' button who is behind that message. Technology is not blame for the divorce, rather the person who used it, is.

I for one agree with what the judge in the senator's case said: "When you marry someone, you go through the ceremonies of bertunang (engagement), bernikah (taking of the vows) and bersanding (presenting the married couple). Now why can't you divorce someone properly as well?"

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