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Islamic weddings leave women unprotected

Community leader urges mosques to register for solemnisation of marriages so that British law will recognise ceremonies

Tania Branigan
Monday November 24, 2003
The Guardian

The leader of Britain's Muslim parliament has warned that many women are legally unprotected when their marriages end because they wrongly believe that Islamic wedding ceremonies are recognised by British law.

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui has asked imams not to carry out weddings unless they are accompanied by civil registration, after being contacted by an increasing number of women who have found that their marriages were not legally binding.

That means they can be left with minimal rights on divorce or the death of their partner. Legal experts compared the situation to the widespread but unfounded belief in "common law marriage", when in fact cohabitees have far less rights than spouses.

"It's partly a lack of knowledge; couples think the marriages are legal," said Dr Siddiqui. "But some women tell me they were promised civil ceremonies which never came. People are doing it knowingly and exploiting women and that was what really horrified us.

"Some people take the cover of religion and say marriage is in the eyes of God and they don't trust in manmade laws - this sort of nonsense.

"Then one day the locks are changed and it's all over. The woman has no legal protection."

Widows can find that they lack pension rights and have no rights to their partner's property if he has not left a will.
Mosques and other Islamic centres can be registered for the solemnisation of marriage, but according to the Office of National Statistics, only 160 have done. Couples who wed in unregistered ones must arrange a civil ceremony for their marriage to be legally binding.

Dr Siddiqui urged mosques to register and asked imams at unregistered venues not to perform weddings without evidence that the civil ceremony had taken place or had been scheduled for the immediate future. Other possible solutions will be discussed at a conference of imams in February.

Aina Khan, a London-based solicitor specialising in family law and Islamic law, said that she had been surprised to see an increase in the problem recently. "We thought it would go away with more education and awareness of women's rights," she said, adding that many of those affected were educated professionals such as solicitors and accountants.

Unlike spouses, unmarried partners have no rights to claim maintenance from each other when the relationship breaks up, and no automatic right to a share of property in the other's name.

"You have to ask a judge to decide what were the couple's intentions over property. That's not easy" Mrs Khan said.

Women who have been through an Islamic ceremony have some advantages over other cohabitees. The Nikah, or marriage certificate, records a "haq mehr": the financial sum the wife will receive in the event of divorce or widowhood. That can be enforced as a form of contract.

"Judges do listen to what the intentions of the parties were as Muslims; English law is open to that," added Mrs Khan.

But while some mosques encourage couples to state that assets will be split 50-50, the mehr is often a symbolic sum, such as £50 or £101.

"Islam was very radical; letting women work and keep their assets 1400 years ago. We weren't even allowed to own property in Britain until the 19th century," said Mrs Khan.

"It is also a very pragmatic religion. If women knew how important [the mehr] was they would play more of a role in deciding what it should be. Islam says this must set up a woman to be independent; it can't just be a nominal sum.

"Women don't raise it because it's seen as being a bit in your face. But look at the women of early Islam and in no way were they submissive. Women need to wise up."

'I thought I would have rights, but I didn't at all'

More than 500 guests enjoyed the week-long celebrations of Shabana Delawala's wedding in 2001. But when the teacher's marriage ended less than a year later, she was shocked to discover that she and her husband had never been married in the eyes of the law.

"A religious ceremony means much more to you than a civil one: I would never have lived with that person if we had only had a civil ceremony," she said.

"I thought a religious marriage was seen as something within the law in England and Wales. I thought I would have rights. But of course, I didn't at all."

Shabana, 23, from Woodford Green in Essex, cannot discuss her financial situation as she is engaged in a legal battle with her former partner.

But she said that Islamic wedding certificates often recorded a token settlement such as £50 in the event of marital breakdown.

"That's hardly enough for a pair of shoes these days," she said. "You're expected to go back to daddy's house and that's it. It's atrocious.

"Because divorce is such a taboo within the culture, it's never mentioned. I'm not stupid; I'm educated, articulate and confident. But because of the cultural pressures it's not proper to have a woman saying, I want 50% of the assets [if the marriage ends]."

Another woman she knew found out that her marriage was not legally recognised a few months after her wedding, but her husband said he wanted to see how well they got on before arranging a civil ceremony. A few years later, he left her.

"I want to make other women aware of this, because I believe this is affecting hundreds of women," Shabana said. "People are having just the religious ceremony so the man can protect his assets."

She asked women in her situation to contact her at




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