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Marriage registration amendment is 'much needed'

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Baroness Cox’s proposal to require registration of religious marriages will help protect vulnerable women and is a step in the right direction, says Christian Concern’s Islamic Affairs Director, Tim Dieppe.
 

Baroness Cox has proposed an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill that would require all religious marriages to be legally registered. This would prevent polygamy, and grant legal protection to women in the marriage. Many Muslim women have testified that they assumed that their Islamic marriage was legally recognised and were shocked to find that this is not the case. Without a legal marriage, women who are left by their husbands find they have little or no rights in terms of child custody, finance or property. By contrast, in Pakistan, and many other Islamic countries, registration of marriages is compulsory. The rights of married women are therefore better protected in Pakistan in this respect, than in the UK as the law currently stands.

I myself recently heard a women testify that she was married in an Islamic marriage and has a video of the ceremony. Subsequently her husband declared that he was never married to her and shamed her to all her relatives and friends. When she complained to the Mosque they did not acknowledge that they had carried out the ceremony, even when confronted with the video evidence. This is an extreme case, but one that would be entirely prevented by Baroness Cox’s amendment.

There is increasing acknowledgement that sharia courts or councils operating in the UK are creating a quasi-parallel legal system and systematically discriminating against women. Last week, the Women and Equalities Minister Justine Greening said that the government is taking concerns raised by Baroness Cox about these councils "extremely seriously."

This week, the Home Affairs Select Committee began hearings for its inquiry into sharia courts.  Dr Ahmad Al-Dubayan, chairman of the UK Board of Sharia Councils told MPs that it is impossible to know how many so -called sharia councils are operating in Britain. He said that in some cases, self-styled sharia authorities are operating out of small shops "maybe hidden in the basement or somewhere." "There is no record for this and no studies unfortunately," he said.

MPs were also told that between 30 and 40 percent of Muslim marriages are purely religious, and hence not recognised under British law. Last year, a lawyer specialising in cases of sharia law claimed that there are up to 100,000 Islamic marriages not recognised under UK law leaving women without proper legal rights. She also said that "Probably a quarter of all the couples I see involve polygamy issues. There has been a high rise in recent years because people can have a secret Nikah (Islamic ‘marriage’ ceremony) and no one will know about it." She estimated that among the under-30s, "80 percent could be unregistered and in some faith communities, such as Somalis, it is 90 percent."

A 2014 report by Aurat: Supporting Women, a women’s rights charity, drew evidence from 50 case studies of women living in the West Midlands. Of those who identified as married, 90 percent were in unregistered marriages not recognised in English law. Over half of those whose marriages are unregistered were not aware that they had fewer legal rights than those whose marriages were registered. Two thirds of those who identified as married said their husband has more than one wife. Nearly all the women in polygamous marriages said their husband does not support them financially. 

The Marriage Act 1949 requires Jews and Quakers to register their marriages, but not Muslims. Baroness Cox’s amendment would end this disparity, ensuring that women are protected from polygamy and given full legal rights. It is scheduled to be debated in the House of Lords next week. I very much hope that the government will adopt it, though they are likely to argue that they want to wait for the outcome of the inquiries into sharia courts. It is very good that Baroness Cox is highlighting the plight of women with unregistered marriages in this way and I look forward to seeing how the debate progresses next week.


Related Links: 
Young Muslims fuel huge rise in Sharia marriage (Times £)  
Rise in Sharia marriages prompts polygamy fears (Telegraph) 
Sharia law being administered in shop basements, MPs told (Telegraph) 
Equalities minister voices Government concerns about Sharia courts' powers (Mail) 
Book Review: 'Women and Shar'ia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK' 
Rise of the basement sharia council: MPs told unregulated authorities that perform unofficial marriages and hand out divorces are 'popping up everywhere' (Mail) 

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