In a landmark and long-overdue decision, the Lahore High Court made it possible for Christian couples to divorce without the wife being declared an adulterer.
The court restored a section of the Christian Divorce Act of 1869, which had been omitted during the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978-1988) under the Federal Law Revision and Declaration Ordinance of 1981.
The 1981 law, which plagued the Christian community – and especially Christian women – disallowed divorce for Christians unless the husband accused his wife of being an adulterer.
The law, which successive governments failed to change, was highly abusive to women, who, with no other recourse, had to suffer being branded adulterers (and sometimes prostitutes) or stay in an unsatisfying or abusive marriage.
Some couples wishing to divorce chose to convert, but oftentimes the law was used by abusive husbands to obtain an “ex parte” decree from the courts. An ex parte decree — a judicial proceeding conducted in the absence of the defendant — was frequently used by husbands to keep court proceedings they had initiated against their wives secret until a decree was issued branding the wife an adulterer.
Pakistan’s malfunctioning judicial system facilitated such abuse. For example, sheriffs were notoriously derelict in their duties to post notices and display court summons the couple’s front door. Similarly, the requirement to publish announcements of these proceedings in local newspapers was also ignored.
Once branded an adulterer, such a woman – as well as her entire family – would find it difficult to survive in Pakistani society.
The restoration of the Christian Divorce Act of 1869 includes the provision to apply to Pakistani Christians the same principles that courts in England use when adjudicating matters of marriage and family disputes.