If you think that divorce brings shame and stigma squarely upon women only in conservative societies, think again. Because according to a ”news” report published in the Malaysian tabloid, Metro Ahad, celebrity divorcees are apparently the hottest thing on the market at the moment. I usually read the stuff on local tabloids with a pinch of salt, but I take issue when the seriousness of divorce and disrespect for divorced women are glossed over for sake of entertainment gossip. The Star Online has the story:
Being a celebrity in the entertainment world attracts a lot of attention but being a divorcee it seems, will add more “aura” and “glamour,” reported Metro Ahad. Celebrities such as Abby Abadi, Rozita Che Wan, Nora Danish, Azharina and Nurul are among the divorcees being pursued by V.I.Ps*, who are often already married.
Abby said she was shocked that there was a veteran artiste who was willing to be the middle person in setting up meetings with V.I.P.s outside the country. “If the person is someone I do not know, I would not be insulted but this person is my friend. How dare this person do such things?
Friend or not, they should feel insulted because they’re basically treated like call girls:**
“I know who the V.I.P is but there is no need to reveal his identity. The payment promised is a huge sum but I am not money crazy,” she said, adding that she was told that many celebrities entertained V.I.Ps outside the country.
It’s become common knowledge in Muslim communities in many parts of the world–rural and urban alike–that being divorced and female tends to carry extra connotations while being male and divorced does not. Let’s start with looking at the words like “aura” and “glamour”. First, they are not the kind of words that flatter a woman if what they really suggest is unwanted attention and almost certainly, sexual harassment. Second, the two words thinly veil societal symptoms that strips the respectability of divorced women, reducing them to wanton “used goods”. In Malay popular discourse, a woman’s divorced or widowed status increases the suspicions of her available sexuality and the subsequent tendency to view her as a seductive temptress.
There is a whole page in Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis that illustrates this perfectly. In Volume 2 (page 178), the author’s childhood friend tries to talk Marjane out of her decision to leave her husband by sharing a story about her sister who’s left hers (forgive the lack of images):
“A year ago, my sister left her husband. From the minute she had the title of divorced woman, the butcher, the pastry chef, the baker, the fruit and vegetable seller, the itinerant cigarette seller, even beggars in the street, all made it clear they’d like to sleep with her. From men’s point of view, for one thing, their dicks are irresistible, and for another thing, since you are divorced, you’re no longer a virgin and you have no reason to refuse them. They have complete confidence! Listen, there’s nothing surprising about it! Ever since their birth, their mothers have called them doudoul tala (golden penis). So, as long as your life isn’t hell, stay with your husband! I know your family is open-minded, but everyone [else] will judge you!”
It’s worth unpacking this societal malaise to understand the stigma behind a woman’s divorce. Traditionally, a woman’s worth is often defined by her relationship with a man: either it’s her father, husband or any random male guardian. Without ties to any of these men as a result of marriage, divorce or death, a woman is perceived to be in a kind of limbo, unable to restrain her female sexuality. Furthermore, marital breakdown is often viewed as evidence for a woman’s inadequacies as an all-sacrificing wife and mother, which adds to the reason why women very often take the blame if marriages fall apart.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this malaise is society’s general refusal to sympathize with divorced women and, if she has children, to acknowledge the fact that the bigger challenge lies in balancing a career and the needs of the family alone, rather than fulfilling her sexual needs. Compared to the relative ease for Muslim men to seek separation from his wife or to marry another, divorce for Muslim women is an agonizing and often debilitating reality that has no reason for glamorization. And despite the fact that Muslim women the world over are making amazing strides in the workplace and family codes, the humiliation that often comes with divorce has yet to be seriously and urgently addressed.
* V.I.P is often a codename for wealthy, influential men in Malaysian gossip lingo.
** This does not insinuate the demonisation of sex workers on my part – they deserve our respect and sympathy, too.