Cultural Sociology of Marriage and Divorce in the Khoja Shia IthnaAsheri (KSI) Community.
Hasnain Walji, Ph.D.
The KSI Community has a unique amalgamation of its Gujarati (Indian) heritage infused with the values of Islam from the Shia School of thought. Hence any discussion on the social aspects of marriage and divorces must take into account the curious admixture of faith and cultural heritage. This is so very evident in the actual marriage ceremony as in well as the expectations of the families and the Community. While the marriage contract called the Nikah is the central plank of the union, many Indian customs of Gujarat, which is where the Khojas hail from, are practiced even after three generations in North America.
Per their faith, like all Muslims, the Khoja repose their faith in Islamic teachings. Marriage as prescribed by the Quran, is the lawful union of a man and women Ideally, the purpose of marriage is to foster a state of tranquility, love and compassion in Islam. Hence their strong adherence to the value that Islam highly discourages divorce so as to to maintain the peace and tranquility. This equilibrium is not just between two individuals but on the family and even the Community. The latter impact upon family and extrapolated to the Community, is all the more pronounced through the cultural ties of the 150,000 strong Khoja Community around the world.
Indian society has deep roots in its culture and has very strong family ties. This indeed is the reason that even today India has some of the lowest rates of divorce. This seems to be reflected amongst people of Indian origin around the world. Generally, Indians regard divorce as a deep shame, more than just a failure. Because the family is ‘shamed’, no self respecting Indian man or woman would want to put their parents/family through that. The thinking, ingrained since birth is: marriage is to be taken seriously and is not something to play at. The Khojas have been taught these values over time and multiple generations still take marriage very seriously. While the younger generation is coming to terms with the modern world and opening up to the possibility that they do not have to stay in a bad marriage if they don’t want to, today people in their 40s and over are still very much inclined to abide by the social norms and prefer to stay in a relationship at every cost.
Having observed and studied social aspects of the Khoja Community for the past 20 years, here is my submission outlining the factors and prevailing attitudes towards marriage and divorce in Khoja society.
- Marriage for stability rather than happiness: Within Khoja Society (in common with the wider Indian Society) marriage emphasizes upon the values of honor, loyalty, respect and commitment towards the spouse and his/her family. The Islamic values of peace, tranquility and stability are often emphasized over human emotions of love and happiness. The concept of “One Man, One Woman” is imbibed in them from the day they are are born. The operative concept here is: within Khoja Society people are not ‘getting married’ but are ‘entering into a marriage’. Hence divorce is considered a blemish on ones’ character, meaning it is something a lot of people won’t even contemplate no matter what situation they find themselves in.
- Formidable social and family structure:Strong emphasis is placed on bonding with relatives. All the relatives have a role in various stages of ones life, from birth to death. One of these stages is A marriage is more than a civil union between a man and a woman. It is the union of two families where the bride and the groom have merely taken take the spotlight. Hence the origin of the term “seeking alliance” (Rishta) rather seeking bride/groom. People tend to live in larger family units, and when you marry someone you are in many respects marrying the whole family. It therefore has more of an impact on the wider family if people get divorced.
- Wedding ceremony as a rite of passage:Khoja weddings, involve months of pre-marital traditions and several days of the actual wedding. During all these proceedings, almost all relatives are actively involved. All the wedding guests, are personally invited by the parents of the groom and the bride. The wedding is followed by a consummation ceremony on an auspicious night. Afterwards, the couple have to meet all the wedding guests for a wedding feast. This entire “marriage process”, as termed by the parents involved, establishes a psychologically joint identity between the couple and the clan.
All the above factors provide a solid social framework which is widely respected by all strata’s of Khoja society. Any one who wishes to divorce their spouse will be opposing this long-established order and will experience some of the following consequences:
- Shaming in the society as well as by one’s own family members who cling onto family pride and honor:This could involve separation from important family matters, not being invited for functions that revolve around the concept of family, and being considered black sheep in the society. Generally Indian Communities tend to be ‘shame’ based society vs a ‘guilt’ based society. One tends to more concerned about shaming the family. In the eastern tradition, ‘saving face’ is an important factor and hence its critical as to what other’s think about you and your family (whether or not it’s true)
- Depreciation of value in the for subsequent marriage Divorcees are branded as marriage failures and chances of another marriage will be greatly diminished especially for the woman. Marrying a divorcee is frowned upon. Basically she will have to go back to her father’s home and live there unmarried (in the vast majority of cases) until her death. The stigma pervades generations and even extends to siblings as well children of divorced parents, who will find hard to get suitors for their own marriages,
- Impact on children: Needless to state that any divorce is an extremely disturbing experience for all children depending upon the age or maturity level. In addition to the usual emotional issues, the social stigma that envelopes a Khoja divorce is all the more traumatizing for them. Sadly, children from divorced families in the Khoja Community go through a rough time adjusting to the recriminations by their peers and even elders. The children, especially daughters who are of marriageable age are particularly affected, as the stigma of parents divorces mans that they are less likely to get proposals for marriage form within the Community.
Given such societal pressures, it is not surprising that the divorce rate in India is extremely low compared to the United States. Against 54% in USA, the rate of divorces in India is just 1.4%. It is 37% in Canada, 39% in Germany, 43% in UK, 43% in Russia & 55% in Sweden. In Japan however it is only 2%.  (Could there be a correlation between Eastern vs the Western cultures?) The above are all reasons that could contribute to these contrasting figures. Because in India pressure from the society is huge, even complaining about marriage problems is looked down upon and Indian women contend themselves by sharing their problems with other women who are facing similar things. Indians in general are considered more tolerant because of the problems they face while growing up. Facing relationship problems is second nature to them, compromises become a part of life.
Divorce is undoubtedly looked upon as absolutely the last resort (especially by women) and there are still couples who would rather stay apart without divorcing than obtaining a legal separation. Unlike the west, people in unhappy marriages are not ready to leave the marriage because of their inability or strength to face the repercussions. Many, simply choose to live apart rather than divorce – this is very common in many Indian families. If there is a maturity on the part of both partners, it may well be a sensible arrangement. This is not unheard of, neither in Indian societies nor in America. Researching for this monograph I came across numerous stories in the media about married couples living apart. Apparently the number of people living part is in the increase. According the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 3.5 million married couples in the U.S. are living apart. The number of married couples who live separately for reasons other than legal separation has nearly doubled since 1990.
Hasnain Walji, Ph.D is an author of 23 books and an oral historian of the Khoja Shia Ithnaasheri Community and Producer of the acclaimed film: The Khojas – A Journey of faith. A Community activist, he has delivered many papers on the Subject of Khoja History around the world. He has also served as President of the World Federation of KSIMC – A UN accredited NGO serving the global Khoja Community.