Celebrate Divorce, in Iran, California and Everywhere

While we may grieve the individual marriages which end in divorce, Iran's experience reminds us to celebrate divorce as a legal institution.
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The nation has a rising fascination with matrimonial discord. Apart from improving the ratings for "Real Housewives" shows, divorce is often looked at as a sad unavoidable reality. Two news items remind us that divorce is actually something to celebrate. The New York Times reports that Iran's divorce rate is skyrocketing. And also this week, David Boies and Ted Olson did a phenomenal job of in the Ninth Circuit panel's hearing on the appeal of Perry v. Schwartzenegger, the Proposition 8 case.

In Iran, divorce has shot up for reasons that should be celebrated. One of the overlooked achievements of the 1979 Revolution in Iran is the sharp increase in women's education. Decades later, this educational investment has begun to pay dividends in women's increased economic freedom, as women now outnumber men at universities and the level of women in the workforce has nearly tripled. These women have better options, so they resist patriarchal norms that reduce them to the subservient wives within early and often-arranged marriages. Although men have far greater freedom to divorce than women in Iran, women can incentivize their husbands' cooperation by settling over the payment of a mehrieh, which husbands are expected to pay upon marital dissolution under Islamic law. In essence, women contract away rights to get out of marriages. Women also engage in other, more creative, tactics, as exposed in the pathbreaking documentary, Divorce Iranian Style by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini. In that film, now 12 years old, women jockey for any advantage to escape unhappy marriages.

Iranian conservatives argue that divorce should be curtailed. What had been "Marriage Day" is now renamed "No Divorce Day." Their presumption of Iranian clerics is that divorce is a bad, destructive thing.

Divorce, however, can be liberating. This is no news to feminists, but public discourse has taken a turn against divorce in the past few years in the United States, even though rates remain quite high. As Naomi Cahn and June Carbone note in their book, Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, divorce rates tend to be higher in regions where a belief in traditional marriage is strongest.

The place with the largest number of Iranians outside of Iran, California, is also a hotspot for shifts in understanding marriage. Yesterday was also the debate before the Ninth Circuit Panel hearing in the appeal of Perry v. Schwartzenegger. As marriage equality for lesbian and gay people moves up in the federal court system, lost in debate by proponents and opponents (on right and left) is the centrality of divorce in this debate.

In most states, lesbian and gay couples cannot get married. Proponents argue that the tragedy here is that these couples' relationships go unrecognized by the law -- whether it's the dignity of the name "marriage" or the real legal rights, most often the focus on establishing recognizing relationships. Divorce, though, is one of the core rights attendant to marriage. Without access to divorce, lesbian and gay relationships that end have little structure. People with no access to lawyers purchase property together but don't enter into agreements to govern separation. What results is an uneven and unfair distribution of assets and even custody over children and pets. Through access to marriage, lesbian and gay people can also get divorced. Indeed, one of the plaintiff couples in the famed Goodridge case of Massachusetts has already benefited from access to divorce laws. Divorce, ugly as it may be, provides legal norms for an orderly disentangling of two individuals' lives.

Although the days of scorned divorcees (think of the Drapers' neighbor in Mad Men) are over, divorce still has a bad name. But while we may grieve the individual marriages which end in divorce, Iran's experience reminds us to celebrate divorce as a legal institution.