Unregistered Islamic Marriages: The War on Women Continues | Wasiq Wasiq

The think-tank Civitas has produced a report titled Fallen through the cracks: Unregistered Islamic marriages in England and Wales, and the future of legislative reform. The report authored by Emma Webb – director of Forum on Integration, Democracy and Extremism (FIDE) at Civitas – looks at the issue of unregistered Islamic marriages and their invalidity in U.K. law. It uses case studies, data and testimonies from Muslim women to highlight the issues posed by these unregistered religious marriages and recommends next steps in moving forward.

Whilst the issue of unregistered Islamic marriages it not new, this report is very much welcomed in raising concerns about a practice that has been, and is still going on, where Muslim women appear to be disproportionately negatively affected by it. However, that is not to say that all unregistered Islamic marriages are bad, just that by nature, they seem to be structured in such a way that it is Muslim women who find themselves to be the losers.

One of the most striking aspects of unregistered Islamic marriages is the process of divorce, which according to U.K. law would not pass any tests on equality. For example, should a man seek to divorce his wife, then he is free to do so by simply uttering the words ‘talaq’ (repudiation) three times, thus annulling the marriage instantly. However, should a woman wish to do the same, the process is slightly more complicated.

There are two ways a woman can seek a divorce. The first is through what is known as a ‘khula’ which is the process by which, through permission of her husband and agreement to pay back her dowry (mahr), can she request to be divorced. The second way to achieve a divorce is through a third party (Shariah council) known as a ‘faskh’, with the onus on the woman to prove that her husband had acted unreasonably or harmfully towards her.

In both instances, from the women’s perspective, what is clear is that the structures appear to be set up against her. How is it that a man, at will, can simply utter a word three times to divorce his wife, whereas a woman has to jump over a number of hurdles, ones that she has no control over, in order to achieve the same result? This is not equality, this is power situated against women through no fault of their own, other than being women. So, the issue here is not just that unregistered Islamic marriages are discriminatory towards women, but that if in the absence of a legal marriage, a Muslim woman may find herself caged in by an electric fence.

The Civitas report highlights other issues as a result of unregistered Islamic marriages. For example, child custody in exchange for divorce. This was an issue – as the report suggests – raised by the Casey Review in which it found Muslim Arbitration Tribunals (Sharia Councils) exceeding the limits of their lawful jurisdiction by making life changing decisions, from individuals with little to no training relevant in these areas. As a result, many women and children felt traumatised by decisions made on their behalf and not necessarily with the aim of promoting their welfare. The fact that such tribunals exist, and according to the witness testimonies in the report, can operate in a somewhat clandestine way, suggests that, unless we get more evidence in this regard, we will only know what is available to us on the surface.

As well as highlighting serious concerns in regards to unregistered Islamic marriages, the report also offers steps forward to tackle such issues. The first is to amend current legislation to make mandatory all religious marriages registered in accordance with the Marriage Act 1949. Though, as the report asserts, it is not a silver bullet. It is nonetheless a consensus view of the interviewees as a first step.

The second recommendation is for extending the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 to

cover Islamic divorces, as was previously achieved for the Jewish community. The crucial point here is that, unless an Islamic divorce is granted, then a Judge can withhold a civil dissolution of a marriage. This therefore prevents the phenomenon of the ‘chained woman’ whereby, for all intents and purposes, a woman is publicly divorced, but in reality, isn’t because she cannot remarry (religiously) until her religious divorce is granted.

The third and fourth recommendation is a national campaign, on educating women on their rights or lack off, should they only have an unregistered Islamic marriage. In addition to this, more research is needed into the socio-cultural aspects that allows for an environment where such injustices are possible and able to take place in.

The Civitas report scratches the surface of a phenomenon that has taken place for many years. The fact that unregistered Islamic marriages are structured in such a way that it appears to discriminate against women disproportionately should be a concern for us all in a liberal free democracy. The fact that these marriages are being used in place of registered marriages according to U.K. law, suggests that there is a need to examine whether – as Trevor Phillips suggests – ‘parallel lives’ and religious laws exists which do not promote integration but rather segregation. In addition, accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ are not levied at anyone seeking to tackle them, a point highlighted by the interviewees who are the victims of these unregistered Islamic marriages. If this is the case, then it maybe that unregistered Islamic marriages is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cultural and religious practices that are not in tune with modern day Britain.

There is a war on women currently taking place, and this war must not be won. Tackling the issues presented by unregistered Islamic marriages is a necessary first step. If a society doesn’t protect the rights of women, then it is a society that has regressed to the medieval ages.

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