Pressure is being placed on the UK government to make it a legal requirement for Muslim couples to register their marriages civilly before or at the same time as their religious ceremony. This will ensure women’s fundamental rights are preserved upon divorce and Sharia councils operate within the law writes Hilary Lennox, Barrister from Pump Court Chambers.
Many Muslim couples in the UK have an Islamic religious marriage ceremony – a Nikah – in an unregistered building and do not have an additional civil ceremony. This means that their marriage will not be recognised as being legally valid. A husband can end a Nikah marriage by using the “Talaq” procedure, which is not court based. A wife must make an application to a Sharia Council.
A 2018 Independent Review into the application of Sharia Law in England and Wales found that without the civil registration many Muslim women have no option of obtaining a civil divorce rendering them homeless and penniless upon a Talaq.
The legal changes put forward are;
Mina Akters survivor and founder of #campaignnisa on Instagram. This is her story:
After my Muslim marriage ceremony, I spoke with my new husband about registering our marriage at a Registry Office here in the UK. This angered my husband. My role was not of a wife, it was a carer and maid to serve the in laws. I took on the role of a traditional south Asian daughter-in-law gracefully however I was under full surveillance by my new in laws in their home.
After five years of being enslaved, humiliated, controlled and financially abused I contacted a domestic abuse helpline during lockdown. The adviser helped me make sense of what was happening; coercive control and psychological abuse to be submissive in fear. Without any conversation my husband abruptly gave me 21 days to collect my belongings failure to do so will result in disposable or donation to charity. I contacted the police. The Police informed me this is not a crime it is a civil matter. I was denied entry to a house I made home. My marriage ended after a 28 second phone call from the husband stating he’s giving me Talaq (divorce).
Sharia Councils have no legal status and no legal binding authority under civil law. The UK Government believe that people should be free to practice individual religious freedom but that national law will always prevail if it conflicts with religious practices.
Muslim women coming forward revealing the consequences of their islamic divorce suggest that some religious bodies may be operating in ways that are discriminatory against women, including women being invited to make concessions to their husbands in order to secure a divorce.
Justice under the current legal system
Mina Akter syas: I will never get justice under the current legal system because Muslim and majority of south asian women like myself did not register our marriages and are misunderstood by the police. An application of sharia law to order the woman’s dowry to be paid on divorce is not enforceable. I had no access to justice.
Registering religious marriages should be a legal requirement before Nikah as a deterrent of abuse against vulnerable women and as a safety net. More awareness of cultural abuse needs to be made to prevent the oppressive practice of servitude.
Naima Asif barrister from Pump Court Chambers says: the cardinal principle of sharia law is fairness and equal justice, as demonstrated by one of the many verses in the Quran:
O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be [a case against a] rich or poor [person]: for God must be given preference over them. Follow not the lusts [of your hearts], lest you swerve, and if you distort [justice] or decline to do justice, verily God is well acquainted with all that ye do. (Quran 4:135).
Council of Europe resolution
In January 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution which raised concerns about the operation of Sharia councils in the UK, highlighting marital issues and Islamic divorce proceedings. The resolution called on the UK to make it a legal requirement for Muslim couples to register their marriages civilly before or at the same time as their religious ceremony, and to ensure that Sharia councils operate within the law. In October 2019, the UK Government indicated that it was still considering the matter of law reform.