Archive for the ‘civil marriage’ Category

Media scares about ‘sharia marriages’ miss the point

Saturday, July 11th, 2015

Published on Guardian website (Comment is free) here on 6th July 2015

Recent press coverage on Muslim weddings no longer describes them as religious, Muslim or even Islamic marriages. Instead they are being referred to as sharia marriages. The negative connotations associated with the word “sharia” allow dubious links to be made to extremism, as in an article on the front page of the Times on Friday: “Young Muslims fuel huge rise in sharia marriage”. The article quotes a Muslim lawyer, Aina Khan, who says Muslims are opting for the Islamic ceremony (and not the additional civil marriage that would make the marriage legal) because of increasing religiosity, which the reporter connects to influence from the Islamic State militant group.

This dubious argument is further bolstered by the unverified statistic that 100,000 Muslim couples are in marriages not recognised under UK law. Other media – including the Telegraph and the Mail – have promoted the story and added further statistics, such as a claim that there are 20,000 polygamous unions in the UK. These statistics are extremely difficult to verify, given that such marriages are not registered, and appear to be little more than opinions. For example, the original source of the statistics on polygamous unions is a personal view given to a reporter by two social workers in 2011. The government’s official estimate, by contrast, is just 1,000.

Another questionable statistic quoted is that up to 80% of young Muslims are in unregistered marriages. This ignores the fact that many Muslims were married abroad, and so do not need to register their marriage. When someone gets married abroad, the basic rule is that the marriage is valid under the law of that country (providing it was registered with the appropriate authority) and it is therefore also valid under British law. I am not saying there isn’t a problem with legally invalid marriages or polygamous marriages – there is. But it is frustrating when such flimsy statistics are used to scaremonger and misinform.

At the Muslim Women’s Network UK, the charity I chair, we come across numerous Muslim women who have had only the religious ceremony in the UK and are regarded as cohabitees. However, it is difficult to quantify the extent to which this is a specifically Islamic problem. Regardless, it is significant enough to warrant action due to the consequences women face when the marriage breaks down such as homelessness, loss of assets and not being able to claim financial support from the spouse. This is especially traumatic when children are involved.

To address the issue, we need to identify the reasons for unregistered marriages. In our experience, it is not, as these articles suggest, because young Muslims are becoming more religious. A key motive in the cases we see is to prevent women from claiming assets should the marriage end. It boils down to young Muslims opting to live as cohabitees (but with the Islamic blessing to comply with religious obligations) so they can safeguard their financial interests.

And while in most cases it is men and their families pressurising women to accept this arrangement, I know of successful professional Muslim women who have married men earning less than them and who have also preferred this set-up. In many ways this is no different to the average cohabiting couple in Britain today that chooses to live together without formalising their arrangement through marriage – so that if they break up, it’s not expensive.

However, when such unions, whether Muslim or not, do break down, it is mostly women that face financial hardship. So it is time the law was reformed in England and Wales to remedy the injustice faced by cohabiting women of all backgrounds. Scotland has already provided greater protection to cohabitees in the area of maintenance and property. As for Muslims that want to get married, they should not cherry-pick parts of marriage that benefit them. They should accept their full responsibilities as spouses by also making a legal commitment and registering the marriage.

Campaigns to simply get more Muslims to register their marriages will have a limited impact because they will only speak to those who want to be in legally recognised marriages. Instead we should follow France and make it illegal for anyone to conduct a religious wedding ceremony without a prior civil marriage. Combining such a policy with greater protections for cohabitees would help solve a great number of problems – which are faced by many Muslim and non-Muslim women alike.