Although I hear a lot of horror stories on a daily basis, this work has shown me that there are people in our communities who are actively dismantling the stigmas around divorce.– Soumaya Ettouji
For many women, cleaning up the mess and devastation after a divorce is one of life’s greatest trials. Feelings of loss and loneliness can plunge many into holes of depression, and in extreme cases, suicide. In this crucial moment of their lives, women find themselves making poor choices and decisions, venturing too quickly into new relationships and struggling to build financial freedom. Too often do we find our communities ostracising these women in these extremely challenging and all-consuming moments of their lives. Some are left to taste the pain of judgement and stigmatization, and for others, divorce is not just the end of a marriage but also the end of themselves.
Seeing herself in the images of other divorced women and recognising her pain in theirs, Soumaya Ettouji turned her lemons into lemon cakes, finding a purpose by being a shoulder of support and helping them to reclaim their lives after going through a divorce. Soumaya Ettouji was working in Kenya as a regional sales and marketing manager for a luxury architecture and decoration company before she lost her job in December 2019 when the country’s market ended up in a financial crisis. The mother of one, who was going through a divorce at the time, was eventually evicted from her home when she fell behind on her rent. She would later move to Morocco and stay with her family before moving to England in the UK.
Having to face everything that was holding her back, including past traumas, abandonment wounds, neglect of her spiritual life, anger and resentment for the men in her life, Soumaya decided to take her life back, working through her trauma and healing from it. Having turned her life around, it became her mission to do the same for other Muslim women going through the same thing. To find out more about her work, TMWT had a chat with her, and here’s everything she told us.
TMWT: Your work as a divorce coach helps Muslim women find themselves again after the trauma of divorce. What led you to choose a career as a divorce coach and how has your journey been so far?
Soumaya Ettouji: My own experience through a divorce made me realise how challenging it is for a Muslim woman to find reliable support during a separation. Unfortunately, our communities have failed to educate both women and men on the etiquette of divorce according to the Sunnah. A lot of us find ourselves in hostile battles with our ex-spouses, with kids suffering the consequences in the middle.
Women are too often blamed, judged and ostracised from the community during the divorce process when they actually really need the support to heal and move forward with their lives. Experiencing the trauma of being misunderstood at that time myself has led me to want to help other women overcome those barriers to healing deeply.
Alhamdullilah, in this journey I am noticing a movement that encourages women to speak up for themselves, know their rights in Islam and focus on their healing and I’m loving it. I’ve also realised a lot still struggle to invest in their well being because they see it as a selfish or embarrassing act but this will change more and more with time insha’Allah.
TMWT: Divorce rates amongst Muslims are becoming higher every day. What, In your opinion, are the reasons for this? And do you think this trend can lead to a reform in the marriage institution?
Soumaya Ettouji: Times have changed! In the past women were not as financially independent and educated as they are now. And many cultures would make it clear that divorce was not an option, no matter what. Leaving was logistically impossible for those who found themselves in a relationship that was problematic.
Nowadays, depending on where they are, young women in marriages that aren’t working will find it easier to leave than their mothers who were going through similar struggles. Mentalities have changed so families are more inclined to support a daughter who wants to leave or was left by her husband. Women are also more educated on what abuse looks like and how it can be more than physical abuse. A lot of mental health associations and professionals are now available to help women who are stuck in toxic relationships.
I definitely think the rising number of divorces within the Muslim community is making people rethink the way we approach marriage, how we chose our lifelong partner and how much we invest in the marriage’s success. Muslim women are starting to understand that working on themselves emotionally is the first step to finding a suitable spouse. That culture does not always respect what our beautiful religion has taught us, that it’s okay to stand up for your rights when that happens, that it’s more important to invest in things like pre-marital counselling than in an extravagant wedding.
TMWT: How easily do you think Muslim women trapped in unhappy marriages can get a divorce and what are the likely challenges they may face in the process?
Soumaya Ettouji: Although it’s easier than it used to be in the past, there are still obstacles a Muslim woman will face while trying to get a divorce:
- Confronting a spouse who categorically refuses to admit that the marriage has fallen apart
- Getting support from her family and friends
- Struggling financially due to being suddenly cut off by her spouse
- Making rational decisions in the midst or a tornado of emotions
- Surpassing the stigma of seeking external help from professionals
- Breaking the silence after potentially having pretended like everything was fine and being faced with dismissive comments like “Are you sure it’s that bad? Don’t you want to make it work for the sake of the kids/what will people say/your financial stability…?”
- Worrying about the kids’ reaction and how they’ll cope with such a life changing decision
And many more… So it is definitely not easy to start the divorce process but what is sure is that no one deserves to be miserable their whole life because of their marriage and if Allah has made it permissible to split a relationship that isn’t working it is for a reason. When you are suffering in your marriage and there’s no way to fix things, going through the hardship of divorce to find peace is a thousand times worth it.
Staying in a marriage that isn’t working is a recipe for disaster that you will pass onto your children too. You’ll show them the wrong model of what love and respect are supposed to look like and they will more likely unconsciously repeat your unhealthy patterns. Breaking the silence about your dysfunctional marriage is also breaking a toxic cycle of generational unhealed wounds.
TMWT: Your work is centred around Post-divorce trauma. What will be your advice to Muslim women who may be trapped in unhappy marriages but are finding it utterly challenging to leave?
Soumaya Ettouji: Try to understand what exactly is challenging for you and take it one step at a time. Divorce can be overwhelming, talking to someone neutral and trustworthy, preferably a health professional, about what is going on in your head will help you find clarity about what you need to do.
Reach out to your local masjid to learn about the way things are done in Islam and for moral support too if they are ready to help. Stay away from religious figures who ask you to go back to a home where you are being abused. Don’t doubt your intuition when it comes to your safety.
Then, seek legal advice even if you want things to be amicable. You have to understand the divorce process in your country to initiate it and know what your rights are. You can’t predict how your partner will react, it’s important to be prepared for anything. Sometimes you discover a really dark side of the person you’ve married in the process of ending your union.
Create a support system by joining groups (on Facebook, WhatsApp, at your local Masjid or community centre, through group coaching programs like my Healing Circle…) of women who are a step ahead of you and who are now happily divorced. You will need that sense of community when times get hard and no one around you seems to understand your pain.
TMWT: What are some of the things Muslim women need to know to survive and thrive after a divorce?
Soumaya Ettouji: Muslim women need to know that Allah loves them, what they’re going through isn’t punishment from Him, it’s a way to get closer to Him. We were raised to believe hardship was a sign that we were doing something wrong or that we didn’t deserve to be happy when in fact Allah tests those He loves the most.
There’s also the idea that divorce is the end of the world for a woman when really it can be the beginning of a better chapter in her life. It’s a chance to start fresh in all fields of her life and question all the subconscious programming that has led her where she is. Muslim women going through a divorce also need to be prepared to lose friends and even family members in the process but those losses will lead to a more positive support network that will allow them to finally be their true selves.
The main thing to know is that you’re not alone in this although you will feel lonely a lot of the time. There are organisations and professionals ready to help you out but you have to take the step, to be honest with yourself and ready to change your life around.
TMWT: What are some of the contents of your programme and how can Muslim women get started with you?
Soumaya Ettouji: My programs cover exactly what I was lacking after my divorce to understand who I truly was and why I ended up in a marriage with someone who wasn’t for me at all. They help my clients learn how to love themselves again and embrace a positive mindset about the future. They work with me on a 1:1 basis or through group programs in which they get to feel the support of other Muslim women going through similar struggles.
While being coached by me, they also learn how to eliminate all the negative beliefs they hold that are keeping them stuck, how to practise self-compassion, set better boundaries, stop being a people pleaser… and much more. Coaching really is life-changing for those who are ready to put in the work.
I blend neuro-linguistic programming, timeline therapy, hypnotherapy and an Islamic approach to healing which is perfect for sisters who want to reconnect with Allah.
TMWT: How far do you think your career has changed you and your view of the world?
Soumaya Ettouji: This career path has changed me in many ways. It has helped me let go of my own limiting belief that seeking help was for the weak. I now am proud to say that I have 3 coaches and that I seek therapy when needed.
Since I have decided to focus on coaching divorced Muslim women, I have met so many inspiring sisters that have filled my heart with hope and even helped me understand reframe some of my own challenges.
I see so much strength in my sisters but so little faith in themselves when I first meet them. What I have realised is that ONE conversation with someone who’s ready to listen to them and make them feel seen can literally change their whole perception of themselves for the better. Sometimes it takes one AHA moment to change their whole life Alhamdulillah.
Although I hear a lot of horror stories on a daily basis, this work has shown me that there are people in our communities who are actively dismantling the stigmas around mental health, divorce, seeking professional help… I truly believe that the new generation will be made of stronger Muslims because they are good at questioning practices that feel wrong and are based on culture rather than religion. There’s still a lot to be done but together we can build a better informed and more compassionate Ummah insha’Allah.
TMWT is an online media platform spotlighting the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. We aim to be one of the most authoritative and informative guides to what is happening in the world of Muslim women. We hope to cover key issues, spark debates, progressive ideas and provocative topics to get the Muslim world talking. We want to set agendas and explore ideas to improve the lives and wellbeing of Muslim Women.