Maryland's Highest Court Refuses to Recognize Pakistani (Islamic Law) Divorce:

The case, decided yesterday, is Aleem v. Aleem. The court reasoned that, while foreign divorces are generally recognized unless they violate the state's public policy, the sex-discriminatory nature of Islamic divorce law does violate Maryland public policy, at least where the parties are Maryland residents.

"If the Pakistani marriage contract is silent, [footnote: The places in the “contract” where a division of property would normally appear were simply left blank in the case at bar.] Pakistani law does not recognize marital property. If a pre-marital or post-marital agreement in Maryland is silent with respect to marital property, those rights are recognized by Maryland law.... In other words, the ‘default’ under Pakistani law is that Wife has no rights to property titled in Husband’s name, while the ‘default’ under Maryland law is that the wife has marital property rights in property titled in the husband’s name. We hold that this conflict is so substantial that applying Pakistani law in the instant matter would be contrary to Maryland public policy."

The talaq divorce of countries applying Islamic law, unless substantially modified, is contrary to the public policy of this state and we decline to give talaq, as it is presented in this case, any comity. The Pakistani statutes providing that property owned by the parties to a marriage, follows title upon the dissolution of the marriage unless there are agreements otherwise, conflicts with the laws of this State where, in the absence of valid agreements otherwise or in the absence of waiver, marital property is subject to fair and equitable division. Thus the Pakistani statutes are wholly in conflict with the public policy of this State as expressed in our statutes and we shall afford no comity to those Pakistani statutes.

Additionally, a procedure that permits a man (and him only unless he agrees otherwise) to evade a divorce action begun in this State by rushing to the embassy of a country recognizing talaq and, without prior notice to the wife, perform "I divorce thee ..." three times [which is what happened in this case -EV] and thus summarily terminate the marriage and deprive his wife of marital property, confers insufficient due process to his wife. Accordingly, for this additional reason the courts of Maryland shall not recognize the talaq divorce performed here.

Earlier, the court also reasoned that "the enforceability of a foreign talaq divorce provision, such as that presented here, in the courts of Maryland, where only the male, i.e., husband, has an independent right to utilize talaq and the wife may utilize it only with the husband’s permission, is contrary to Maryland’s constitutional provisions [barring sex discrimination] and thus is contrary to the 'public policy' of Maryland." Just as Maryland courts refuse to enforce English libel law judgments, because those are arrived at without regard to American free speech principles, so the court refused to enforce the Pakistani divorce.

Note that this does not preclude the enforcement of prenuptial contracts that expressly limit marital property rights — the court expressly speaks of the default Maryland rule applicable "[i]f a pre-marital or post-marital agreement in Maryland is silent with respect to marital property." (There might be some minimum rights that a spouse might have under Maryland law notwithstanding any express prenuptial agreements, but the court clearly contemplates that a good deal of one's marital property rights can indeed be waived through such an agreement.) It also doesn't speak to what happens if the prenuptial contract doesn't give a specific limitation, but rather states, "in the event of a divorce, we agree that the property shall be divided by applying Pakistani law" or "... by applying Islamic law" or "... under a decision of an arbitral tribunal convened through [name of group]." Here the contract was entirely silent, so the court had no occasion to decide the matter.

My view is that the court decision is quite right on these facts, given the absence of any express agreement about marital property division. I'm inclined to say that if the parties had agreed to an uneven property division, or to a property division pursuant to sex-discriminatory rules, that agreement should be enforceable (again, subject to whatever minimum support requirement state law generally imposes, and setting aside child support issues, which are a matter of duty to the child and thus can't be waived by contract with the spouse). The wife was only 18 when she married the husband, but she was an adult, and should thus be held responsible for her contractual decisions, even if they are made under social or family pressure. But of course I'm aware that others may disagree, and may take a more paternalistic view with regard to contractual enforcement; and in any event in this case, there was no express contract to the first instance.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer. Prof. Friedman also links to this Baltimore Sun article, which has more on the case, including commentary from Islamic law scholars.