Till Death Do Them Part?

by Nur Hafiza

I want to introduce the concept of divorce to my grandmother.

I suppose she had a happy, lovely marriage at the beginning. She left her family to be with him. Despite being more educated than he, she stayed at home to care for their four children while he worked endless hours to bring home money for the family. She cooked and cleaned for him, and even to this day, I have never seen my grandfather do so much as wash his plate after his meal.

It sounds like such a beautiful romantic sacrifice when I lay it out like this, but then you see what lies below the surface: A woman who gave up her family and a possible career for a man who wouldn’t even clean up after himself. A man who molested two of their grandchildren, and then vehemently denied it. Years of unpaid physical and emotional labour have taken a toll on my grandmother, and after the sheer pain of the news of the abuse, she is done.

She complains about my grandfather every single day. A rattle in the kitchen? Kau dengar tu? Dia dah lapar dah tu, tengah cari makan, padahal baru tadi makan roti. (Did you hear that? That person is already hungry and finding food when he just ate bread a while ago.)

She refers to him only in the vague, genderless third person dia, not the more affectionate atuk or abah (grandfather or father). I can’t remember the last time she referred to him as anything but dia.

She complains constantly about him. Whenever I meet her, or when my mum calls her on the phone it’s what she mostly talks about. Dia memang macam gitu, suruh makan ubat tak nak, suruh sembahyang dia tidur pulak. Buat lupa-lupa, cakap nenek tak bilang dia. Padahal berapa kali nenek dah cakap. (That person is like that, asked him to eat medicine he doesn’t want, asked him to pray he sleeps instead. Pretends he forgot, and accuses me for not telling him even though I’ve told him so many times.)

Coming from a conservative Muslim family, I guess it’s expected that such a terrible and shameful news such as a grandfather molesting his own grandchildren is swept under the rug and forced to be forgotten. My cousins were incredibly brave to speak out, and I am endlessly proud of them and will continue to support them through whatever they wish to do to find closure, but of course the rest of my family doesn’t feel that way.

My grandmother too, once told me to please lay this issue to rest, because it was causing her so much pain and stress. I can’t remember what I told her in reply, but after many one-sided conversations on her part, she finally admitted to me that such a disgusting act is definitely something that my grandfather is capable of.

It was after that admission that the endless, constant complaints started coming in. Atuk and abah became dia in her eyes. He ceased to be her grandchildren’s grandfather and her children’s father; he was just ‘that person’ who she had to spend all her time with.

So, I want to introduce the concept of divorce to her.

But what’s stopping me from doing so? And what will stop her? In this community where divorce is seen as a failure of the woman to hold down a man, where divorce is blamed on the woman for being selfish and for not thinking of her children. Even when her children have grown and her grandchildren are even starting to get married and have their own families, I’m sure they would find a way to blame her for tearing them apart, instead of congratulating her for wanting to find her own peace away from someone who constantly upsets her.

Even beyond blame, there seems to be an ingrained belief that women need a man in order to be complete. Some of it stems from society — patriarchy and the traditional Western belief that the female is the inferior and incomplete man — but most of it is also from the community’s definition of Quranic concepts such as Qiwamah: that men are protectors, leaders, and providers for women.

In this perspective, divorce to a woman is a huge loss, since she will be incomplete, unprotected, vulnerable, lost, without her leader of a husband.

Or will she?

While divorce for many women may not be an option due to economic and financial restraints, my grandmother has her own life savings from a small business she continues to run, and her children are well-off enough to support both parents separately. She hasn’t had to financially rely on her husband for a long time.

In fact, if anything, it is he who has been heavily relying on her, and who will ultimately lose the most from the divorce. He would, for the first time in his life, have to cook his own food and clean his own plates and clothes and living spaces. Her burden instead, would be halved. Or more than, since he clearly causes her so much constant frustration.

I personally find comfort in the fact that men have an average life expectancy that is five years less than women, which means that hopefully my grandmother will have at least five healthy, stress-free years away from her frustrating, shameful, disgusting human specimen for a husband. She’s very healthy — years of discipline with her health and food does that — while he is a mess of health problems, so I’m sure she’ll have her peace sooner rather than later.


Nur Hafiza is passionate about gender justice in Islam. When she is not busy trying to make the Muslim community a healthier place she enjoys binge watching Korean variety shows.

Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu