PETALING JAYA: Several months into her fifth pregnancy, Nurul’s husband broke her jaw.
Describing him as hot-headed, Nurul (not her real name), now in her 50s, said he had for years abused her both emotionally and physically.
“He would fly off the handle over even the simplest things. If I disagreed with him, he’d slap me, even in front of our children,” she told FMT in a recent interview.
“Once, we were arguing in the car and he told me to jump out while we were going quite fast. When I didn’t, he hit me.”
Aside from the violence, despite being a jet-setting executive who earned over RM30,000 a month, he would give her only RM200 housekeeping money a week to care for and feed their 10 children. He always scrutinised every receipt.
“I was lucky to have a small amount of savings squirrelled away. When my husband was away for his work and there was nothing left in the house to feed the kids I would dip into that to buy basic foodstuffs for them,” she recalls.
His job took him overseas a lot and the family sometimes went with him. “People thought we were living a good life because he had money, but they didn’t know the truth.”
Behind closed doors, his temper often flared, leading to bruises for her. Once, he beat her so badly that she went to lodge a police complaint. The police asked her to consider the likely consequences of taking her husband to court.
“They said if I brought charges and he was found guilty, he would go to jail. He would lose his job, and his criminal record would mean he would be unemployable afterwards. I considered what that would mean for my children’s future – at the time my youngest was only seven – and decided to drop it.”
From then on, Nurul tried to make the best of her marriage for the sake of their children. Then four years ago, in the midst of a heated argument, her husband suddenly divorced her (talak satu). “He moved out, leaving me with nine kids,” she said.
“Later, he tried to reconcile with me and started giving me RM4,000 a month to take care of the children’s expenses. But I’d had enough. I filed for my rights in the shariah court, and he stopped giving us money.”
Nurul filed for “harta sepencarian” which allocates assets jointly owned by the couple, “muta’ah” which is the compensation paid to a divorced wife, and “nafkah” which is an allowance given to children under 18 or for those who are still studying, until they complete their degree.
The process was a long, difficult and frustrating one for Nurul.
“There were times when I went to the shariah court only to find that the judge was not there, so the case would be postponed again. Other times we had to amend the paperwork because the delays took so long that by the time the case was finally heard, some of the kids were no longer minors.”
After three years, the court decided on the compensation Nurul should be awarded. She had sought RM500,000. The court awarded her RM15,000.
“I was married to him for 30 years, suffering long-term emotional and physical abuse. I was his housewife while he earned over RM30,000 a month. The court awarded me what amounted to two weeks’ salary for him.
“Over 30 years, that works out to under RM1.50 per day. Is everything I’ve done for him and the children only worth that much?”
More concerning, she said, was that although she and her husband agreed that the harta sepencarian would be given to their children, and they informed the court of this, the judge did not put it in his written judgment.
“The shariah court is supposed to protect the rights of my children,” she said. “But now there’s no guarantee this will happen because the agreement he and I made isn’t recorded in black and white.”
So, after escaping an abusive marriage, what could be worse than being short of money and food? How about jail and the rotan? Nurul counts her blessings.
“Yes, I suffered, but there are others who are worse off than me,” she says, citing the recent example of a 30-year-old single mother arrested in her hotel room in Kuala Terengganu by district shariah enforcement officers and charged with prostitution. They discovered her preparing to offer sexual services to a man for RM100.
In court, the woman begged for leniency, saying she had only turned to prostitution to provide for her seven-year-old child because she received no financial support from her former husband.
Her pleas fell upon deaf ears and she was sentenced to six months’ jail, six strokes of the rotan, and a fine she could not pay. The sentence provoked a national outcry and received much negative international media coverage.
“When I think about that poor woman and her child, I feel angry that her ex-husband could be so irresponsible and heartless. It’s so unfair that she was punished, while her husband was not.” Nurul shakes her head, seemingly bewildered by how shariah courts often appear eager to punish women, but reluctant to make men live up to their responsibilities and cough up even basic amounts.
She hopes in future the government will better protect the wives and children of men who fail to fulfil their duties according to the law. Enforcing payments mandated by the courts would be a good start, she says.
Her advice now to any wife or mother who is being abused is, “Fight for your rights and do what is best for your children, not what society thinks is correct or acceptable.
“Our society often blames the wife when marriages fall apart. And divorced women are stigmatised and reviled. They are an embarrassment to their community. We all know this. When I was younger, I let this stop me from doing what I should have done much sooner.
“Domestic abuse is a big problem. I hope victims across Malaysia will have the courage to do the right thing. Do not waste precious years in misery.
“And perhaps one day, the government, the shariah courts and our communities will actively ensure that abused and vulnerable women and children get the recompense they need and deserve without having their lives ruined.
“A real man does not punish his children to spite his ex-wife.”