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Investigating Muslim marriage and divorce in Denmark

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In what ways are Islamic principles and practices regarding marriage and divorce important for Muslims in Denmark? SFI recently investigated this topic for the Ministry of Integration. The study finds that, while such principles may indeed be of importance, their content is contested. As different interpretations of what is “right” coexist, some women may e.g. be stuck in “limping marriages” for years, while others are more easily able to end unsatisfactory relationships through “imam shopping”.

As very little research has been conducted on the topic of Islamic marriages and divorces in Denmark, SFI took a broad, qualitative interview approach. Enrolling interviewers with a variety of ethnic minority backgrounds and linguistic capabilities, over a three-month period the SFI team managed to gather a total of 248 interviews from three groups: ethnic minority individuals with relevant experience, professionals such as social workers and police, and finally imams, who may be central when it comes to marriages and divorces for Muslim immigrants in Denmark.

The resulting report Parallel conceptions of law in Denmark shows that Muslim marriages – termed “nikah” – are often attributed central importance as a prerequisite for entering into intimate relationships. These nikahs may occur both with and without also entering into a formal marriage, which is legally valid according to Danish law. One combination of the two rituals is that young couples start their life together with a nikah only, and get their Danish marriage papers years later, after the first child has been born. This pattern partially resembles the majority of Danish couples, who mostly marry after, and not before, the birth of their first child.

If women, who are married “twice” (in both a nikah and a legally valid marriage), later wish to divorce, problems may occur. Under Danish law, access to divorce is equal for men and women, but according to Islam, a man may divorce his wife unilaterally, while the reverse is not the case. This may give rise to “limping marriages”, where women are divorced according to Danish state legislation, but are still considered married in the eyes of their Muslim families and networks. The data indicates that the frequency of “limping marriages” varies considerably between different ethnic groups. For example, while immigrants from Turkey may hold strong attitudes against divorce, they rarely end up in “limping marriages”. This occurs as people in Turkey generally also “marry twice”, but here a subsequent secular divorce is seen as also fully terminating the religious element in the marriage. Turks in Denmark seem to share the same understanding, which is also supported by the Turkish state, who relocate imams to Denmark.

In other ethnic minority groups, a contested issue may be whether the tradition of a husband uttering of the word “talaq” three times is always necessary to end a nikah. While some hold this to always be the case, others hold the view that if a man signs the official Danish divorce papers, he has shown his intention of wanting the divorce, and thus the nikah also ends. Such different interpretations can lead to struggles over what rules should be followed. With no ultimate authority to settle disputes, different family views, and different personal power relations, can give some women, but not others, the possibility of fully ending unwanted marriages without needing to enlist the aid of an imam.

A large part of the report deals with the experiences of women who had to terminate their nikahs separately, against the wishes of their husbands. Here, the support of an imam often becomes a prerequisite for becoming “fully divorced”. Some women have difficulties gaining this support, as imams may tell them to return to the husband they, themselves, want to leave. In contrast, more resourceful women may be able to “shop around” until they find an imam who supports them. Overall, the report shows that Islamic principles on marriage and divorce do hold central importance for some Muslim ethnic minorities in Denmark, but that these principles are interpreted in very different ways. 

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