Archive for the ‘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.

The hypocrisy of child abuse in many Muslim countries

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

Published in Guardian (Comment is Free) here

Child marriage and pederasty are tolerated in Muslim societies where homosexuality is strictly condemned.

Some Muslims are fond of condemning western morality – alcoholism, nudity, premarital sex and homosexuality often being cited as examples. But Muslims do not have a monopoly on morality. In the west, child marriages and sex with children are illegal. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Muslim countries.

I recently saw the documentary on the Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. It exposed an ancient custom called “bacha bazi” (boy for play), where rich men buy boys as young as 11 from impoverished families for sexual slavery. The boys are dressed in women’s clothes and made to dance and sing at parties, before being carted away by the men for sex. Owning boys is considered a symbol of status and one former warlord boasted of having up to 3,000 boys over a 20-year period, even though he was married, with two sons. The involvement of the police and inaction of the government means this form of child prostitution is widespread.

The moral hypocrisy is outrageous in a country where homosexuality is not only strictly forbidden but savagely punished, even between two consenting adults. However, men who sodomise young boys are not considered homosexuals or paedophiles. The love of young boys is not a phenomenon restricted to Afghanistan; homosexual pederasty is common in neighbouring Pakistan, too. In my view, repression of sexuality and extreme gender apartheid is to blame.

And in the Middle East, it’s young girls who are considered desirable and men are able to satisfy their lusts legally through child marriages. In Yemen, more than a quarter of girls are married before the age of 15. Cases of girls dying during childbirth are not unusual, and recently, one 12-year-old child bride even died from internal bleeding following sexual intercourse. In another case, a 12-year-old girl was married to an 80-year-old man in Saudi Arabia.

So why is the practice of child marriage sanctioned in Muslim countries? Unfortunately, ultra-conservative religious authorities justify this old tribal custom by citing the prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha. They allege Aisha was nine years old when the prophet married her. But they focus conveniently on selected Islamic texts to support their opinions, while ignoring vast number of other texts and historical information, which suggests Aisha was much older, putting her age of marriage at 19. Child marriage is against Islam as the Qur’an is clear that intellectual maturity is the basis for deciding age of marriage, and not puberty, as suggested by these clerics.

Whatever one’s view on the prophet’s marriage, no faith can claim moral superiority since child marriages have been practised in various cultures and societies across the world at one time or another. In modern times, though, marrying children is no longer acceptable and no excuse should be used to justify this.

I find the false adherence to Islamic principles and the “holier than thou” attitude of some Muslim societies similar to the blatant hypocrisy and double standards of 19th-century Victorian Britain, where the outward appearance of dignity and prudishness camouflaged an extreme prevalence of sexual and moral depravity behind closed doors. In those days, too, there were many men willing to pay to have sex with children – until a plethora of social movements arose that resulted in changes in laws and attitudes in society.

A similar shift in social attitudes is also required in traditional Muslim societies. Having boy sex slaves or child brides should not be seen as badges of honour. Instead, Muslims need to do more to attach shame to such practices; otherwise, acceptance of this behaviour will make them complicit in the sexual exploitation of children. I fail to understand why Muslims are so vocal on abuses by the west in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Iraq and Afghanistan, but display moral blindness when it comes to children? It’s about time this silence was broken, so these violations of innocence can be stopped.

A too-passive attitude in dealing with child abuse has rubbed off on Muslim communities in Britain, too. I have heard many stories at first hand of child sexual abuse and rape, which show that the issue is not being addressed at all. Those who have had the courage to speak out have been met with reactions of denial and shame. Such attitudes mean that children will continue to suffer in silence. Sexual abuse of children happens in all communities, as has been revealed by the recent Catholic church scandal. At least, they have finally started to take action. Muslim communities should learn from this and also start being more open, instead of continuing to sweeping the issue under the carpet.

I am finding that more and more Muslims feel it is their duty to criticise others for actions they consider sinful – quoting the following popular saying of Muhammad to justify their interference:

“If you see something wrong, you should correct it with your hand and if you are unable to, then speak out against it and if you cannot do that, then feel that it is wrong in your heart.”

I wonder how, then, Muslims can remain silent when it comes to the sexual abuse of children?