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In Tradition-Bound India, Female, Divorced and Happy

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 19, 2008

KOLKATA, India -- In India, a divorce is slowly becoming a girl's best friend.

Across the country's teeming urban centers, petitions for divorce are rising and so are the numbers of headlines and blog entries about how the trend could be the most powerful proof of female empowerment in India in decades.

"We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates," read a headline on the editorial page of Mail Today, a tabloid in New Delhi, the nation's capital. "70-year-old woman wants divorce after 53 years!" read another recent headline in The Times of India newspaper.

In a country where marriage is a cornerstone of family life, there has long been a deep social stigma associated with divorce. Arranged marriages are still common, linking families and, often, lucrative businesses. Many in the older generations discourage the legalization of marital separation. And many couples who have been split up for years and do not live together are still not officially divorced.

Weddings are the most expensive event in Indian family life, opulent soirees that last for days and are the heart of a wedding industrial complex estimated at $11 billion a year. That's in addition to millions of rupees spent yearly on expensive dowries of gold, silk saris, apartments and cars given to grooms and their families by the brides' families. Because of both societal shame and financial pressures to repay dowries, divorce has been so scorned as to be a whispered secret, especially among India's older generations.

But societal mores in India's cities are starting to change. And India is a young nation, with 75 percent of the population under age 35. Major city dailies feature complicated and dramatic divorce stories. Data show that New Delhi, the nation's capital, is also the divorce capital of the country, with about 9,000 cases, or almost double the number registered in family courts four years ago.

Other Indian cities are not far behind. Mumbai captured recent headlines when news surfaced that for every five weddings registered since 2002, family courts have received two applications for divorce.

Even in Kolkata, long seen as a mainstay of traditional Indian culture, cases have soared by a reported 200 percent in recent years, according to divorce experts tracking the trend.

Most of those seeking divorces are young adults employed in call centers, technology companies and elsewhere in the country's booming corporate world. Lawyers say women more often file for divorce and typically have been married for less than five years; some have no children.

Interference by the families of both spouses, especially the husband's stereotypically domineering Indian mother-in-law, is cited as the most common reason for divorce, a sign of the younger generations' growing push for independence.

"Being a divorce lawyer has never been better. The profession is booming," said Suhail Osama, senior associate at Divorce Lawyers India in New Delhi. "One of the reasons is that women are now conscious of their personal space, and men find this fact very difficult to accept. Today, independence has made women less dependent on men, especially in the financial department. No nonsense is tolerated any longer."

A new matchmaking Indian Web site called SecondShaadi.com -- shaadi meaning marriage -- is targeting divorcees and widows. Remarriage was once unthinkable.

Sixty-five percent of the users of SecondShaadi.com are divorced, said Bharani Dharan, site co-founder.

"Part of the trend is because the first marriage is arranged by the family," Dharan said. "The initiative for a second marriage is usually taken by the person himself."

But not everyone is happy with rising divorce rates.

Divorce proceedings often go on longer than the marriage, and debates over child custody and alimony are increasingly complicated. Indian courts are also heavily backed up with all kinds of cases. A majority of divorce cases filed are years from being made final, experts say.

Older Indians still view divorce as a societal ill imported from the West. The subject is often debated on call-in talk shows. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, 70, blamed "intolerance" between couples for rising divorce rates and recently started a helpline for pre-marital counseling.

Traditional joint family living, where a bride moves in with her in-laws and is often expected to care and cook for them, is also changing. Many young Indian couples prefer their own flats and often work in cities far from their home villages.

While meddling parents can be a cause of divorce, some also believe that parental interference often kept squabbling couples together.

"Earlier, there were people in the family who were there to iron out any friction between the partners," Dikshit told the Times of India in a story that contrasted her views with those of a Bollywood star and a novelist. "Now, with nuclear families becoming the norm, where do people go to seek comfort or solace? Financial independence could be one of the factors, too, though that does not mean that you lose your family life in the process."

Best-selling author Shobhaa De, who writes some of India's most provocative romance novels, fired back: "The day the Indian woman walked out of the home and into the workplace, everything changed -- the dynamics of traditional family life and the position of women in our society," she said. "Divorce is still an urban phenomenon and has to do with expectations -- women are not prepared to settle for less."

Researcher Ria Sen in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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