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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Britain's unmarried Muslim 'wives': the unions not recognised by law

Ground-breaking research shows six in 10 Muslim wives in England and Wales are not legally married

Many in Britain did not know that the nikah was not legally recognised in UK law. AFP PHOTO/Sam PANTHAKY / AFP PHOTO / SAM PANTHAKY
Many in Britain did not know that the nikah was not legally recognised in UK law. AFP PHOTO/Sam PANTHAKY / AFP PHOTO / SAM PANTHAKY

When Rukhsana Noor completed her online dating profile, she thought she had taken her first step towards finding love. In reality, she had set off on a path that would lead her to a lengthy legal battle that would cost her hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Ms Noor had many good things in her life: a university education, a professional career and a good salary, but she had always dreamt of having children.

As a single woman, she, like many other British Muslims, was looking for a Westernised man who had Islamic values.

She hit if off with a match and the pair went on to have a traditional nikah marriage in front of friends and family. She gave birth to two children and the couple planned for their future.

Arguments over money became too much and eventually Ms Noor felt like she had no choice but to leave.

To her horror, as she began to embark on filing for a divorce she discovered her failure to get a civil marriage meant in the eyes of English law Ms Noor had never been married at all.

She and the man she saw as her husband were classed as a cohabiting couple. Ms Noor did not have the same rights and protections afforded to couples in a legally recognised marriage.

In the fallout of the split, she lost the home she put 80% of the funds towards and has spent £100,000 on legal costs.

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Read more: Drive to get UK Muslims to register marriages

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Ms Noor is one of the six in ten Muslim women who have had traditional Islamic weddings in England and Wales but are not legally married, according to a ground-breaking survey.

A British documentary that funded the research, The Truth About Muslim Marriages, reveals that more than a quarter of women who had a nikah marriage believed they were legally married.

Hosted by Dr Myriam François, who had a nikah religious ceremony without having a civil ceremony herself, the programme shows the extent of the problem in the UK and the real-life implications facing women who are unaware that their marriage isn’t recognised in law.

Without this legal protection, in the event of a divorce, women are unable to go to the Family Court where the Judge would look at a starting point of dividing their assets 50/50 depending on the needs of the couple and their children. Instead, if they cannot agree between themselves, couples who are not in a legally recognised marriage have to apply to the civil court for assets to be divided fairly, which can be time-consuming and costly.

As the documentary crew began to research the programme, they found that there was no data available on the number of women who had a nikah and whether they were also legally married in a civil ceremony.

The crew embarked on the first ever major survey quizzing Muslim women who identified as married on their knowledge of their rights and the way they had married.

A group of 20 Muslim female researchers were sent all over the country between December 2016 and September 2017, with a focus on areas where the Muslim population was 20% or higher. They spoke to more than 900 women, whose age and ethnicity reflect the British population, from 14 cities. Some of the researchers were trained by academics, statisticians and lawyers who oversaw the project.

They found 78% of the women they spoke to wanted the nikah to be legally recognised under British law.

Aina Khan, a family lawyer, has been raising the idea of a change to the law with the UK government for over ten years.

“I regard it as heartbreaking that these stories are not only happening under our noses but growing as we do nothing,” she says.

“We’ve been caught sleep walking into a disaster.”.

She is lobbying for the current marriage law to make it compulsory for all faiths to register their religious marriages.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, marriage laws have been updated so they are much simpler. There, an authorised celebrant – which includes Imams - can perform the ceremony anywhere and the marriage is legally recognised.

However, making the nikah legally binding would impact the way some British Muslims use it.

The research showed that only one fifth of women under 25 who had a nikah also conducted a civil ceremony. More than 66% were recorded as knowing that it wasn’t legally recognised and two thirds did not intend to get their marriage recognised in law.

This likely reflects the lifestyle of some young British Muslims who chose to have the nikah as a “respectable” way of dating, with some instances of the couple divorcing after just a few days.

It would also impact those who practise polygamy, a practise that is illegal in the UK.

The survey found one in ten were in polygamous Islamic marriages but that 37% of those women had not agreed to their husband having another wife. Almost 90% of women across Britain said they do not want to be in a polygamous relationship.

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Read more: Tinder-style app for polygamous marriages in Indonesia stirs controversy

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The research carried out by the team has verified what lawyers and campaigners had been telling the team anecdotally.

“For me [the findings were] a massive discovering because there is clearly a mismatch somewhere in terms of people's understanding of whether the nikah alone is legal. If over a quarter of the women in nikah-only marriages thought they were legally married then there is clearly some work to be done,” says The Truth About Muslim Marriages Director Anna Hall.

“The women in our film have been so brave to bring this issue to public attention and be identified doing so,” Ms Hall reflects, adding, “One lady literally came home after 8 years of marriage to find the locks had been changed.”.

A number of programmes shown on British television in recent months have been criticised for being insensitive or in some cases being accused of perpetuating racism, as with one show which saw TV producers paint a white woman brown and gave her a prosthetic nose to live ‘as a Muslim’ for a week.

“The most important aspect of this film is that it is a film driven by many many different voices of Muslim women across the spectrum. Muslim women have gone out and got this information for themselves,” explains Ms Hall, who adds, “We have worked very closely with them ensuring that the film is 100% factually accurate and not sensationalist”.

Not all are convinced. UK-based women’s rights activist Nimco Ali have suggested the show has fed into Islamophobia and that because it was "full of holes".

The former child refugee wrote on Twitter: “Honestly people, if you did not sign a marriage license then you are not married. What is so hard about that. What #TruthAboutMuslimMarriage is doing is feeding into islamophobia”.

She added: “#truthaboutMuslimMarriage is full of so many holes and seeking to have the law changed when the issue is people ignoring the law or fraud by the imams. It’s so offensive.”.

Ms Hall did not comment on the posts but told The National that academics from across the world have contacted the team off the back of the survey and that some want to use it for their own research, which she says “shows that [the research] was done rigorously”.

She also highlights that the programme has made an impact on individuals since it aired on British television earlier this week.

“We have also heard of numerous cases of couples now wanting to go and get a civil registration because they did not know their Nikah was not legally valid. This has been in two days!

“We have also been contacted by leading Imams across the U.K. who have thanked us for raising such an important issue in an informed and non sensationalist way.”.