Like most of you, I too, was shocked when I saw the scandal that occurred at the Mrs Sri Lanka beauty pageant, where former Mrs World (2019) yanked the crown off the winner’s head, announced to the crowd that the winner was divorced and she was in breach of the pageant’s rules, and then proceeded to place the crown on the runner up’s head. It was a horrific incident and one that was most certainly uncalled for, as the winner, Pushpika de Silva, was actually well within the rules of the pageant, being separated and not divorced. The former Mrs World, Caroline Jurie was later arrested for causing trauma to de Silva’s head (causing her admission to hospital) and her Mrs World title remains in shambles. But it got me thinking about the stigma of divorce in South Asian countries – specifically when Jurie aggressively removed the crown from de Silva’s head; why are divorced women, (and men) treated with such hostility? Why is divorce such a taboo in South Asian countries?
Many South Asians, as well as other traditional ethnic groups, stay in unworkable and loveless marriages for the sake of finances, duty of care, children, fear or pride. It is the label of a failed marriage, and avoidance of social exclusion that couples try to avoid. Families also play a big role in marriages, where the pressure to uphold the value of their family name, and to not bring shame upon the family looms as a barrier towards divorce. Husbands and wives that are immigrants in Western countries, where divorce is accepted and a relatively easy process, are still forced by societal pressure originating from 8000 kilometers away to stay in emotionally unhealthy and abusive relationships. If they smear the reputation of their families by proceeding with divorce, isolation and segregation from family and community is not uncommon Yet, women bear the brunt of this aftermath more than men. It has severe consequences for women who have no financial resources of their own and rely heavily on their partner. On top of the stigma they face, language and cultural barriers prevent South Asians from finding and using the network of domestic abuse services, and they often lack a cohort of friends and relatives who encourage them to leave abusive situations. So women and men often feel trapped in violent, emotionally draining relationships and there seems to be no way out for them.
However, there is a growing phenomenon called invisible divorce where women like Pushpika, according to a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry, live separate lives from their partners but choose not to legally divorce as there are many advantages to staying married – social, emotional and economic. But what would be even better for men and women alike, is if the assumptions about divorce that prevent these advantages from being lost, were dissipated, yet our culture has not come up with a great dialogue for how to discuss it. It is interesting though, as it is the younger generation of immigrant South Asians with resources and money that are pursuing divorces in the face of overwhelming stigma, giving slight hope that stereotypes steeped in years of conservatism are slowly being dissolved. As Kuldip Gill, a marriage counsellor in Canada said, divorce is not such a big taboo for second generation immigrant couples as most partners in these South Asian relationships both earn an income, divide household obligations and they are not so dependent on each other, which is something that was very different for their parents. And yet for those South Asians without the resources or support, both financially and socially, breaking these barriers is still an incredibly formidable path to trek. The more change that occurs with couples taking the steps towards getting out of an unhealthy relationship, the more these barriers will get broken down and stigmas slowly be erased. It is not an easy feat to overcome, but the freedom and happiness post-divorce is something that is worth yearning for.
Conversation and action matters. Education matters. Knowledge matters. These are the ways in which change occurs. Change matters.
Written and illustrated by Upeksha Galappaththie.