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Pakistani Islamic Divorce in U.S. Courts

by Gabriel Sawma Tuesday, Apr. 26, 2011 at 5:24 PM
gabrielsawma@yahoo.com 609-915-2237

Pakistani men residing in the U.S. travel to their homeland to get divorce decrees from Pakistan. They return back to the United States and seek recognition and enforcement of the Pakistani Islamic divorce decree in a state court. This article deals with the issues related to Pakistani Islamic divorce in U.S. courts.

Pakistani Islamic Di...
gabriel_sawma.jpg, image/jpeg, 335x500

Following the partition of Pakistan in 1947, the Islamic family law regulating marriage and divorce introduced under the British rule continued to govern until 1961 when the government of Pakistan passed the Muslim Family Law Ordinance (MFLO) to regulate divorce in that country.

The Constitution of Pakistan requires all laws to be brought in accordance with the Quran and the Sunnah which constitutes the deeds and sayings of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Chapter 3A establishes the Federal Shariat Court. The law of marriage and divorce is governed by the rules of Islamic sharia.

The law requires the age of males entering into marriage to be 18, and for females 16; there are penalties for contracting under-age marriages, though under age marriages in Pakistan remain valid regardless of the age limit. As to the guardianship issue, the law requires the application of the Hanafi School of Jurisprudence allowing a woman to contract herself in marriage without the consent of her guardian (wali).

The law requires mandatory registration for marriage; failure to register, however, does not invalidate the marriage. Legal constraints are placed on polygamy by requiring the husband to register his marriage at the local Union Council for permission and notification of existing wife/wives. The chairman of the Union Council establishes an arbitration council with representatives of both husband and wife/wives in order to determine the necessity of the proposed marriage. The law requires that the application must state whether the husband has obtained consent from the existing wife or wives. Violation to these rules is subject to fine and/or imprisonment and the husband becomes bound to make immediate payment of “mahr” to the existing wife or wives. However, if the husband does not obtain consent of his existing wife/wives, the subsequent marriage remains valid regardless of the provisions stated in the law; that is because provisions of Islamic sharia are superior to any other law in Islamic countries.

Under the rules of Islamic divorce in Pakistan, a husband can divorce his wife unilaterally, any time, in any place, and, without any obligation to state a reason for divorce. After the husband announces his divorce statement “I divorce you”, three times (triple talaq), the law mandates that the husband gives a notice in writing to the chairman of the Union Council. The chairman must forward a copy of the notice of divorce (talaq) to the wife. Non-compliance with these provisions is punishable by imprisonment and/or fine. The law requires that within thirty days of receipt of the notice of divorce, the chairman of the Union Council must establish an Arbitration Council in order to take steps to bring about reconciliation between husband and wife. If reconciliation is failed, a divorce takes effect after the expiration date of ninety days from the day on which the notice of repudiation was first delivered to the chairman. If the wife is found pregnant during the period following the announcement of divorce, the divorce does not take effect until ninety days have elapsed or the end of the pregnancy, whichever is later. Since the 1980s, and in view of the pressure from Islamic sharia scholars, the practice of the courts in Pakistan is that they validate a unilateral divorce by the husband (triple talaq) by pronouncing “I divorce you” three times, despite a failure to notify the Union Council; this is because Islamic sharia allows a husband to divorce his wife at will, without any provision regarding registration of divorce.

U.S. State family courts do not apply Islamic sharia because of violation of the Establishment Clause set in the U.S. Constitution. However, state courts can recognize divorce decrees issued in Pakistan on the basis of a doctrine in private international law known as “Comity”. Such recognition does not entail an obligation on State Courts to agree with the rulings of a foreign divorce judgment in Pakistan. The Doctrine of Comity is raised when the husband resides legally in the United States, travels to Pakistan, to obtain an Islamic divorce decree from a court in that country, obtains an easy divorce by just stating three times: “I divorce you”, or “I divorce my wife”, in the presence of two male witnesses or one male and two female witnesses; pays the deferred “mahr”, records his divorce in Pakistan, authenticate the documents through proper channels, travels back to the United States, serves his wife with divorce papers, and then seeks recognition and enforcement of the Pakistani divorce by a State Court.

Recognition of Pakistani Islamic divorce decree by a State court in the United States on the basis of “comity” is not mandatory. State courts may deny recognition and subsequent enforcement if the judge deems the Pakistani law is “repugnant” to a U.S. principle of law. Generally speaking, foreign divorce judgments are recognized on the basis of “comity” if the parties involved receive adequate notices, i.e., service of process, and, generally, provides one of the parties has a domicile in the foreign nation at the time of divorce, and the foreign court has given opportunity to both parties to present their case, and the trial was conducted upon regular proceedings after due citation or voluntary appearance of the defendant, and under a system of jurisprudence likely to secure an impartial administration of justice between the citizens of its own country and those of other countries, and no prejudice towards either party, and should not violate a strong U.S. principle of law.

An Islamic divorce decree in Pakistan differs substantially with respect to property division and the “mahr” stipulation. Under Pakistani Islamic law of divorce, wives are entitled to the deferred “mahr”, which is, in most cases, much less than what a State court in the U.S. grants the wife. State courts may not recognize a Pakistani divorce decree if the cause of action on which the divorce is based is “repugnant” to “Public Policy”.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

An authorization to publish this article is herby granted by the author.



Gabriel Sawma is a lawyer with Middle East background. Professor of Middle East Constitutional Law, Islamic sharia, and Islamic economics. Expert consultant on Islamic divorce in U.S. courts; editor in chief of International Law, http://www.gabrielsawma.blogspot.com; Instructor on Islamic economics, http://www.islamiceconomics101.com; Author of “The Aramaic Language of the Qur’an, http://www.syriacaramaicquran.com; Email: gabrielsawma@yahoo.com; Tel. (609) 915-2237.

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