By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 24, 2006; A15
BAGHDAD -- Ten years in the making, the marriage of Raad and Nidhal Khalil was undone in less than 10 minutes of courtroom formalities. Furious when he took a second wife four months ago, she moved out and refused to return until he granted a divorce.
"The social worker's report shows no possibility of reconciling," Family Court Judge Salim al-Moussawi said sternly, his disappointment palpable as he rifled through the thin case file. She shook her head. Raad stared at the floor.
"Are you pure today?" the judge asked Nidhal, who nodded her assent to the standard question about whether she was not menstruating. Shiite Muslim women cannot participate in court proceedings during their periods.
As he dismissed the former couple, both in their forties, Moussawi reminded Nidhal that she was forbidden to remarry for three months. She didn't seem to mind.
For a growing number of Iraqi couples like the Khalils, including the dozen or so others waiting in the cramped and steamy hallway of the Kadhimiyah courthouse one recent afternoon, marital bonds are proving ever more fragile. At least 301,446 divorces were registered in Iraq during the past two years -- nearly half the number of marriages recorded during that time -- according to statistics compiled by the Justice Ministry.
More than twice as many marriages are ending in divorce as before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to ministry and court officials, social workers and divorce lawyers, though no reliable data are available from the earlier period. The twin stresses of perpetual violence and a stagnant economy -- along with the loosening of certain social stigmas -- are taking a toll on one of Islamic culture's most sacred institutions.
"It is an explosion of failed marriages. It has never been like this," said Moussawi, who has sat on the bench for 40 years and said he now spends nearly as much time ending marriages as he does formalizing them. He called divorce "the most despicable hallal," meaning the worst thing permissible under Islam.
Marriages are governed by Iraq's 1959 personal status law. Long considered among the most progressive in the Middle East, it does not adhere solely to Islamic law, which favors men in nearly all matters. But a recent visit to the Kadhimiyah court showed that religious influence remains pervasive.
Rules governing divorce vary by sect. While Shiite women were asked about their "purity" and required to bring two witnesses, Sunni Muslims needed no witnesses and were spared the intimate questions.
Moussawi and other court officials spent much of their time trying to keep couples together. One woman appearing before him sputtered with indignation about the mother-in-law who shares her tiny marital flat.
"No one can endure this," she told Moussawi. "I want some kind of independence and to not be under the thumb of my husband's family's oppression."
But Moussawi urged the husband to try to win her back. He made his pitch.
"Think of college, when I chose you from among all the students," the husband reminded her softly. "I can balance you and my family. I will."
After a tearful, and perhaps only temporary, reconciliation, the case was called off and the two shared a taxi home. "That is a good ending," Moussawi said, smiling.
Before taking his current post, Moussawi sat on Iraq's main criminal court, a job he found less troubling.
"Signing death sentences is easier than signing divorce orders," Moussawi said during a recess in his spartan courtroom. "In executions, it is just a single person punished for maybe a single crime. In divorce, you are collapsing and destroying a whole family and a whole society, because family is the nucleus of society."
As a last-ditch effort to save a marriage, Moussawi said, he often sends couples to meet with Sundis Ghazi Hassan Habash. A social worker assigned to the Kadhimiyah court, Habash said she has seen and heard all of the "excuses" for divorce. She accepts some: physical abuse (which she says is on the rise), adultery or the taking of a second wife -- Iraqi men are allowed up to four -- without permission from the first one.
But she has little time for squabbles over money, quarrels with each other's relatives or what she calls "tiny problems," like bed-wetting, an issue in a recent case.
The husband "complained to the judge that he had to change the mattress every morning," Habash said. "When the judge said this is no reason for divorce, he cursed him. Really, now they want to divorce over anything."
Habash, a trained psychologist who works in a crowded conference room adjacent to Moussawi's chambers, said her main strategy to thwart divorce is to "threaten them and make them afraid of the future."
"I tell the wives no one can care for them and their children as well as their husbands can," she said. "I make the husbands think of their kids so they can see how miserable they will be without them. Sometimes they even cry."
One recent afternoon, she counseled a young couple through what she called "a particularly sensitive problem."
"He wants her to do sexual things not approved by our Muslim and Arab society," she said, declining to explain further. Lawyers said that because women are forbidden to discuss such issues, they turn an empty cup upside down on a table when appearing before a judge, a sign understood to mean they have been subjected to illicit acts.
"If this doesn't stop, the marriage should stop right away," Habash said she told the couple.
Family court officials said that while some aspects of Iraqi society have grown more conservative in recent years, women have been empowered to end marriages that they previously would have been required to endure. Saed Chokhchi, 70, a lawyer at the family court, said that five years ago he worked on one or two divorce cases a month. Now, they take up his entire caseload.
"The way society looks at divorced women is changing. It used to be something disgraceful, but it has become something ordinary," he said. "You have TV and radio promoting independence."
But his colleague, Sara al-Tammimi, 24, said the law was still stacked against female plaintiffs.
While men can bring divorce proceedings for any reason, women can divorce only under certain conditions, such as physical or sexual abuse or abandonment. Absent such mistreatment, a woman can divorce only if her husband consents, and in such cases she forfeits legal benefits such as compensation for the three-month post-divorce period in which remarrying is prohibited.
Since finishing law school a year ago, Tammimi, who is unmarried, said she has handled at least 75 divorces. "It can be depressing," she said. "But I am hoping to get experience from all these cases, so I can do marriage 100 percent right."
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.