LONDON // Thousands of Muslim couples in Britain are discovering years after their weddings that they have never been legally married, it was revealed yesterday. Mostly the situation affects Muslim women who realise that they are not entitled to the enhanced legal protection that marital status brings when they come to divorce.
The problem has arisen because many couples go through a religious wedding ceremony, the nikah, but fail to register the marriage with the civil authorities, as required under UK law. In recent years, there has been a drive to get mosques authorised as places where marriages can be registered, but the initiative has met with only limited success. Besides, many of the nikahs take place in people's homes or at other venues.
According to a BBC investigation broadcast yesterday on its Asian Network, the failure is often a result of ignorance. But, increasingly, it is becoming a deliberate act of omission by the husband to deny his spouse her full legal entitlement should they divorce. Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the head of the Muslim Parliament - a London-based special interest group - told the BBC that the lives of many Muslim women were being ruined.
"It is a major problem in the community," he said. "It is very difficult to put an exact figure on the scale of this because there are no statistics. It could be in the hundreds, if not thousands." Mr Siddiqui believes that some Muslim women are being misled by partners who promise them a civil ceremony after a nikah but then refuse to go ahead with it. "This allows Muslim men to control their wives because they can threaten to leave them and end the Islamic marriage by just saying the words 'divorce, divorce, divorce' to her," he said.
Aina Khan, a senior partner in a London law firm specialising in family law, said: "It's a rising trend for Muslim couples to have marriages that are not legally recognised. "The problem is extremely widespread and it's an increasing time bomb because it's affecting mostly young Muslims, who are under 30 or in their early 30s. "My colleagues and I are having to deal with hundreds of cases where things have gone wrong because the wedding has not been registered.
"Because the couples only have cohabitant rights, it is extremely expensive and complicated to use the law to get the individuals any justice once the marriage ends." One of the women featured in the programme was Shaheeda Khan, who married her fiance in a nikah at her home in Birmingham. She and her husband later moved to London but, 13 months after the ceremony, she realised that her marriage was not legally valid.
"I had to show a marriage certificate when I was enrolling at university," she said. "It was then I realised I didn't have one and it came as a big shock to me." She asked her husband to register their marriage but he failed to do so. A few months later, she came home and found that the locks to her front door had been changed and that she had been thrown out. She had no option but to return to her parents' home.
"I was homeless. I took legal action but I got nothing," she said. "I had been paying the mortgage on our home but the house was not in my name so I lost everything. "It was as though the marriage had never happened. It was the worst time of my life." Shaista Gohir, the head of the Muslim Women's Network, said problems stemmed from the fact that many young Muslims still believed that a nikah amounted to a marriage that was legally binding.
"If a couple has a nikah in a Muslim country then the marriage is recognised under UK law. But many do not realise that this is not the case if the nikah is conducted in this country," she said. Even among couples who did know the legal situation, there was a growing trend from them to "test out" the marriage before registering it later. The problem, said Ms Gohir, was that "later" never arrives. Mr Siddiqui has been advocating for five years for mosques to have their imams or other officials recognised as registrars but, he concedes that very few have done so.
He is calling on Muslim women to protect themselves by insisting on a civil ceremony to register the marriage before a nikah. "The problem is that only a handful of mosques across the country are registering themselves," Mr Siddiqui added. "I don't know why this is the case because it is very simple to do. "Religious leaders must take a bigger responsibility to protect many Muslim women who are unnecessarily suffering."