Do women have an equal right to divorce in Islam?
The Quran and hadith literature point towards overarching principles of justice, equality, human dignity, and non-discrimination against genders.  In line with these principles, the Prophet endorsed and/or modified certain pre-Islamic societal norms and contracts (which later became recognised as muʿāmalāt) to regulate and ensure that contractual affairs of human beings were conducted with utmost fairness, and safeguarded the rights of the contracting parties.
Accordingly, the marriage contract in Islam (categorised as muʿāmalāt in a conventional categorisation of chapters related to jurisprudence) regulated matrimonial norms with fairness and ensured that the rights of both contracting parties were safeguarded. The form of marriage contract (ʿaqd al-nikāḥ) that the Quran and the Prophet endorsed from the pre-Islamic times is bilateral, insofar as it involves mutual consent from both parties.
The Quran and the Prophet also provided provisions by which a marriage contract can be dissolved. The two main methods by which a marriage can be dissolved are: 1) through the method of ṭalāq (which is initiated by the husband) or, 2) through the method of khulʿ (which is initiated by the wife). In accordance with the former method, the wife retains her mahr as she did not initiate the dissolution of the marriage contract; whereas, in accordance with the latter method, the wife has to return her mahr back to her husband, as she initiated the dissolution of the marriage contract.
However, Muslim scholars generally claim that only a husband has the sole right to initiate a divorce in the presence of two just male witnesses. The wife’s presence, or even knowledge, is not required for the religious legitimacy of the divorce. Moreover, although considered as an abhorrent (makrūh) act, a husband can initiate a divorce with his wife for no reason whatsoever. Even with regards to khulʿ, where the wife could initiate the divorce by giving up her mahr, the traditional view holds that the pronouncement of the divorce is still, ultimately, with the husband who could delay or even refrain from pronouncing the required statement (ṣīgha al-ṭalāq).
The wife can solely initiate a divorce by seeking assistance from an authority (known as ḥākim al-sharʿ, qāḍī, or mujtahid), who can pronounce a divorce on behalf of the husband based on certain allowable reasons, such as impotence, abuse, abandonment etc. Some scholars also maintain that a wife can solely initiate a divorce if she stipulates a prenuptial condition within her marriage contract, which provides her with the provision to act as an agent on behalf of her husband to divorce herself. However, the problem with these two solutions is that they fail to give the wife an equal right to divorce in a justifiable circumstance. For instance, a wife may want to divorce her husband for merely not liking him, however in this case she may not be granted a divorce if:
- Her husband fails to agree with her and accordingly does not pronounce the ṭalāq or khulʿ.
- She did not stipulate a prenuptial agreement in her marriage contract.
- A scholar does not consider her reason for divorce as an allowable reason to grant a divorce on behalf of her husband.
Another problem that is commonly faced by Muslims who reside in secular societies is regarding the status of civil divorce. There are numerous instances where the state grants a couple a civil divorce, but the husband refuses to give his wife an Islamic divorce.
Men and women have an equal right to divorce in Islam.
In a religious setting, the divorce men can conduct is known as ṭalāq, whereas the divorce women can conduct is known as khulʿ. If the divorce is initiated by a man (ṭalāq), then a woman is not obliged to return the mahr, whereas if the divorce is initiated by a woman (khulʿ), then she is required to return the mahr.
A civil divorce is equally legitimate, insofar as if a couple underwent a civil divorce, there is no obligation for them to seek an Islamic divorce.
1. The Quran stipulates both ṭalāq and khulʿ as methods of divorce.  Regarding ṭalāq, it does not provide details of whether it is the unilateral responsibility of a man or a woman to settle (or pronounce) the final divorce. The fact that the verses pertaining to ṭalāq are addressed with masculine forms does not substantiate the argument that a man, exclusively, holds unilateral right of the divorce in Islam. It may only convey that a man enjoys the right to divorce.
2. Unlike ṭalāq, khulʿ is not explicitly mentioned in the Quran. Perhaps the fundamental reason for the Quran not detailing the method of khulʿ is that during the time of revelation, cases of women initiating divorce by khulʿ were not as prevalent. Indeed, the Quran was revealed in a context where it was presupposed that a man was the primary breadwinner of a family unit. Therefore, laws pertaining to family-life that are mentioned, detailed, and emphasised by the Quran must be understood within a conceptual framework of the time they were revealed in. The present-day context has significantly changed, as today both men and women play a notable role in the financial affairs of a family unit.
3. The details of who finally settles khulʿ is provided within hadith literature. We find two sets of hadiths; the first set of hadiths indicate that a woman can initiate khulʿ, but the divorce only becomes valid unilaterally when a man approves it and settles it by pronouncing the ṭalāq.  Whereas the second set of hadiths indicate that khulʿ is a form of divorce in itself, wherein a woman merely returns back her mahr to end the contract of marriage.  It does not require the approval of the man.
As the first set of hadiths fail to provide women with an equal right to divorce, they contradict the overarching principles of justice, equality, human dignity and non-discrimination against genders that are generally found in the Quran and hadith literature. Moreover, the first set of hadiths also contradict the rational convention of human beings. For instance, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) describes discrimination against women as:
“…any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which had the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women irrespective of their marital status, on the basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field…”
The second set of hadiths are consistent with the general overarching principles of the Quran and hadith, and the rational convention of human beings. Furthermore, this set of narrations are the only narrations mentioned in the entire chapter of khulʿ of Kitāb al-kāfī by Muḥammad Yaʿqūb al-Kulaynī. This indicates that Kulaynī either did not consider the first set credible enough for the inclusion, or simply rejected them due to the unpopular content for the then Shiite community.
4. A vast majority of Muslim scholars have historically abided by the apparent indication that a man has the unilateral right to pronounce a ṭalāq in order for a divorce to take place. It can, again, be explained that the reason for Muslim scholars making preference to the first set of hadiths is because men have historically been the primary breadwinners of a family unit. It has only been approximately a few decades since the equation has changed so drastically that both men and women play a notable role in the financial affairs of a family unit.
5. So long as present-day civil systems for divorcing are fair, and safeguard the rights of both men and women, then Muslims who reside in non-Muslim jurisdictions must comply with them in order to enjoy the benefits of a legal divorce that is conducted through state regulated procedures. As mentioned, Islam endorsed and/or modified certain pre-Islamic societal norms to regulate and ensure that contractual affairs (muʿāmalāt) of human beings were conducted with utmost fairness and safeguarded the rights of the contracting parties. This notion is supported by the numerous verses of the Quran that encourage men and women to refer to societal norms (bi al-maʿrūf) in various aspects of matrimony. The present-day civil systems and procedures represent societal norms of different societies and communities.
 Quran 30:21, 17:70, 4:1, 7:189, 39:6
 For instance, see, al-Ṭūsī, Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan, ed. Muḥammad al-Bāqir al-Bihbūdī, alMabṣūṭ, al-Maktaba al-Murtaḍawiyya, vol. 5, p. 3; Al-Najafī, Muḥammad Ḥasan, ed. Muḥammad al-Qūchānī and Ibrāhīm al-Mayānijī, Jawāhir al-kalām, Tehran: Dār al-kutub al-Islāmiyya, 1366 sh/ 1987, vol. 32, p. 116. Also refer to the heading of the chapter which reads that the divorce to a desired wife is detested though it is not impermissible, al-Ḥurr alʿ Āmilī, Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan, Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, Qum: Muʾassasat āl al-bayt, 1409/1988, vol. 22, p. 7. Also, Quran 4:34 explicitly reprimands such an act.
 Quran 2:237 and 2:229
 For instance, see al-Ḥurr al-ʿ Āmilī, Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan, Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, Qum: Muʾassasat āl al-bayt, 1409/1988, vol. 22, pp. 283- 287.
 For instance, see Al-Kulaynī, Muḥammad b. Yaʿqūb, al-Kāfī, Tehran: Dār al-kutub alIslāmiyya, 1365 sh/1986, vol. 6, pp. 139-141.
 See Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/
 Quran 2: 228, 232, 233, 241; 4:19, 25