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The Truth About Muslim Marriage

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Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about Muslim marriages this week, highlighting the fact that many Muslim women are unaware that their Islamic marriages are not legally valid under British law. This leaves them without legal rights if their husband dies or if their marriage breaks down. Tim Dieppe explains that Baroness Cox has introduced a Bill in the House of Lords that would solve this problem by requiring all religious marriages to be registered. He argues that the government should support this Bill.

 

Channel 4 aired a documentary on Tuesday night “The Truth About Muslim Marriage”. The programme highlighted the fact that many Muslim women in Britain are unaware that their Islamic marriages are not legally recognised. This means that they do not have legal protection if their husband dies or if the marriage breaks down. The legal rights of many Muslim married women in this country are worse than those of women in most Islamic countries.

 

Survey of Muslim women

The programme featured results of the first major survey of Muslim women married in the UK. The survey found that 99% of these women had had a traditional Islamic marriage, or nikah. Three out of five (66.5%) of these had no civil ceremony, and therefore were not recognised as married in UK law. Of these, 28% thought that they were legally married. Two thirds (66.3%) did not plan to have a civil ceremony in the future.

 

How nikahs are carried out

The programme showed an Islamic marriage and interviewed Imam Ajmal Masroor who claimed to insist on civil registration of Islamic marriages. This is the same Ajmal Masroor who promised to renounce his faith in a live radio debate with me. It appears he has yet to keep his promise.

Although many nikahs are carried out in a Mosque, traditionally, nikahs are carried out in the home or in a banqueting suite where the Imam comes to conduct the ceremony. This means registration of the nikah ceremony itself is more difficult. Only one in ten Mosques are registered to carry out legal marriages. The survey found that less than a third (30.7%) of women were married in a Mosque, and of those, only one in thirty (3.6%) also had a civil ceremony in the Mosque.

Only one in eight (12.4%) of the women were advised by the Imam what is required for their marriage to be recognised in law.

 

Registration would prevent polygamy

Although polygamy is illegal in British law, many Muslims have polygamous marriages, making use of the fact that most nikahs are not registered. 88.7% of the women surveyed did not support polygamous relationships. However, 10.9% said that they were in a polygamous relationship, and 37% of those said they had not agreed to the polygamous relationship. Enforced registration of religious marriages would put an end to polygamous Islamic marriages.

 

Baroness Cox’s Bill

Baroness Cox has introduced a Private Member’s Bill into the House of Lords that would make it a legal requirement for religious marriages to be registered. Although Baroness Cox is shown in conversation with others in the programme, it was disappointing that she was not interviewed herself. Her Bill is expected to be debated in the House of Lords next spring. She has initiated a debate on this before and obtained widespread support from peers. Up till now the government has been unwilling to take this forward.

 

Action needed

When asked “Do you want your nikah to be recognised under British law?”, 78% of women said “Yes.” Currently, as was pointed out in the programme, married women have more legal protection in a Pakistani village than in Britain. In some EU countries it has been illegal to carry out a religious marriage without a civil ceremony for some time. Britain stands out in not protecting women in this way.

I hope that this programme will help to raise awareness of this issue and will put pressure on the government to take action. Baroness Cox’s Marriage Act 1949 (Amendment) Bill should be supported so that women are protected.

 

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