Divorce stigma in South Asian communities

Originally published on 31st May 2024 at 9:12 AM
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Many South Asians are bound by the shackles of cultural and religious norms, making the decision to divorce even more difficult than it already is.

There is a greater focus on social perception rather than on the wellbeing of those within a marriage. South Asians have clearly defined roles within marriage and the family unit – the husband as the head of the household and the wife tending to the family. Getting a divorce is frowned upon, and can be seen as self-serving and antagonistic to cultural expectations.

Divorce stigma also stems from religious expectations. Although religions such as Sikhism and Islam accept divorce as a last resort, it is heavily discouraged. Marriage is seen as a lifelong commitment and there is pressure on the couple to work out any issues. In Sikhism, the Sangat (congregation) is even asked to intervene to save the marriage.

In Westernised sub-cultures, such as in the UK, divorce remains a taboo topic. However, more South Asians are speaking out about their experiences, creating a less stigmatised path for future generations.

Asian Single Parents Network is an organisation which provides a safe space for Asian single parents to connect with others in the same situation without the fear of judgement. They encourage members to share their journeys to provide hope and show that there is light at the end of the tunnel. ASPN sees the negative effect stigma has on its members and aims to combat it.

Stigma encountered by South Asians

Divorce stigma can cast a shadow over the lives of divorcees in various forms.

South Asians may face judgement from the community for failing to work on their marriage but the burden of stigma can be heavier for women – some female members of ASPN have experienced disapproving looks from others in their local temple because they are divorced. Marriage is ‘a merging of two families’ affecting the whole community. South Asians may be pressured by family and friends to stay in toxic marriages due to factors such as social standing, economic disadvantages and the upbringing of children.

Divorcees may also be isolated from their community by being withdrawn from friendship groups and not being invited to events. Even if they get to attend events, they could be faced with critical comments or gossip. Being cast out of family and friendship results in divorcees lacking a support system, forcing them to navigate any challenges by themselves.

Consequences of stigma

Psychologist Jyothsna S Bhat notes that there is ‘an unspoken tolerance for suffering’ in South Asian marriages. Divorce stigma often stops many from considering divorce, leading to unhappiness. This is worse for those who have been victims of domestic abuse — members of ASPN who have faced abuse have found their families unsupportive, being told that they should stay in the marriage. This can be extremely harmful not only for the individual experiencing abuse but also for their children. Solicitor, Jan Stanton, says that unhealthy relationships can be normalised by children, leading them to continue the cycle of abuse as adults.

Cultural conditioning pressures South Asians to stay in unhealthy marriages to make their parents proud. It can be difficult to break out of this pattern of expectations to prioritise wellbeing and happiness. Family dishonour plays a part in this as there is an emphasis on reputation in South Asian communities. Families of divorcees often feel that not only the individual getting divorced is dishonoured but so is the whole family unit.

The ramifications of stigma can continue for years after divorce and they can be more severe for women. For many women, it can be a struggle to remarry; they may be deemed as less worthy or ‘damaged goods’ which can lead to loneliness and struggling in the dating pool. There are also deep-rooted issues which can prevent women from initiating divorce such as power dynamics. Women may not be financially independent and may be forced to give back their dowry or any gifts received. They may also feel unsafe to leave their marriage due to abuse from their partner or the partner’s family.

The effect of divorce stigma

Stigma can have a profound negative effect on South Asian divorcees, causing mental health and physical issues.

Being judged by family, friends and others in South Asian communities can provoke feelings of shame, embarrassment and failure. The negative way in which an individual is perceived can lead to health problems such as anxiety, depression, stress, sleep issues and more. Stigma from the community makes the already difficult divorce process even harder.

Stigma can also be internalised – growing up to believe that marriage is a lifelong commitment and then getting a divorce can make individuals feel selfish. Even if there is no criticism from family or friends, South Asians are accustomed to cultural expectations. Lack of success in marriage can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. South Asian divorcees with children may also feel as if they have failed them when in fact they are prioritising their wellbeing.

The combination of community and internalised stigma can result in individuals having low self-esteem, resulting in social withdrawal, confidence decline and self-care neglect. Instead of demonstrating stigmatising attitudes, South Asian communities should help those going through a divorce, ensuring they have a support network.

ASPN’s collaboration with Gravesend Gurdwara marks a milestone in normalising divorce. Religious institutions play an important role in South Asian communities and this first-of-its-kind event is a vital stepping stone in helping to break stigma.

Priya Chandra states that a ‘shift in education also introduced more freedom and liberalisation to the next generations of British Asians from South Asian backgrounds’. Thanks to education and access to support networks, such as ASPN, attitudes to divorce are gradually changing.

Maintaining an open dialogue about divorce in South Asian communities is central to combating stigma and creating a supportive environment, making a crucial difference for those navigating divorce.


Sikhi against divorce (2019) https://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Sikhi_against_divorce#Divorce_is_taboo

The Silent Struggle: Divorce Stigma in South Asian Communities (2023) https://aspnetwork.org.uk/the-silent-struggle-divorce-stigma-in-south-asian-communities/

The Stigma of Divorce in South Asian Communities (2022) https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-psychology-the-south-asian-diaspora/202208/the-stigma-divorce-in-south-asian-communities

The Role of Parents - Stantons Solicitors (2024) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VMHmuqi-7E

ITV Report - Gravesend Gurdwara & Asian Single Parents Network Event (2024) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZN38v6S7d4

Soaring Rate of British Asian Divorce (2023) https://www.desiblitz.com/content/soaring-rate-of-british-asian-divorce

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