A ground-breaking Channel 4 survey has revealed that almost two thirds of Muslim women married in Britain are not in legally recognised marriages, as they have not had a civil ceremony alongside their Nikah religious ceremony. Many of these women are unaware that they therefore do not have the same rights and protections afforded to couples who are married in the eyes of the law.
The survey also explored attitudes towards polygamy, finding that the vast majority of women questioned did not wish to be in a polygamous relationship, and more than a third of those who were in such a relationship had not agreed to it. (The Truth about Muslim Marriage, Channel 4, 10pm, 21st November).
One ceremony which unites virtually all of Britain’s three million Muslims is the Nikah – the traditional Islamic wedding ceremony. Ninety-nine per cent of those women questioned had a Nikah marriage. But, without having a separate civil ceremony, the Nikah alone is not a legally recognised marriage. This can cause serious problems for some people if their relationships break down.
Without the rights and protection provided by a legally recognised marriage, women are unable, in the event of a divorce, to go to the Family Court where the Judge would then have looked as a starting point at 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.
There are no reliable figures on the extent of Nikah-only marriages in the UK, so Channel 4 worked with a group of Muslim women to undertake the first major survey of Muslim women who were married in the UK.
The survey, of 1000 women across Britain, reveals that while 78 per cent of those questioned wanted their marriage to be legally valid under British law, nearly two thirds (61%) only had a Nikah marriage, meaning that their marriage is not legally recognised. Two thirds of those who did not have a civil marriage ceremony said that they did not plan to have one in the future.
More than a quarter (28%) of those women with only a Nikah marriage did not realise that it did not give them the same rights and protections as a legally-recognised marriage. The survey suggests that Imams could be better at explaining to couples the legal difference between a Nikah and a civil ceremony. Just one in eight of the women questioned said that their Imam had advised them on what is required to be married in the eyes of British law.
The programme interviews one woman – Rukhsana Noor, a successful IT consultant – who only had a Nikah. She says that it was only when her marriage broke down and she went to see a solicitor, that she found out she couldn’t get a divorce, as she wasn’t legally married. If Rukhsana had had a civil marriage, she could have gone to the Family Court for her divorce. The judge would then have looked at a starting point of dividing their assets 50/50 but this could have been varied depending on her and her children’s needs. Rukhsana had to go to the Civil Court to prove her financial contribution to the purchase of her house before being able to sell it. Rukhsana has now been in and out of court for five years and has spent over £100,000. In the meantime, the house has become derelict and she’s been unable to sell it.
The survey found that 89% of respondents did not want to be in a polygamous relationship. Just over one in ten of those questioned were in a polygamous relationship. And more than a third of those (37%) had not agreed to it.
Solihull born Habiba Jaan has four children. She tells the programme that after having a Nikah, she wanted to get a civil marriage, but her husband kept putting it off. She says she found out that he had been married to another woman for 13 years before he met her and had another wife as well. When she refused to carry on in a polygamous marriage, she was unable to get a divorce as she had only had a NIkah. She had to sell her house and most of her assets and ended up homeless and had a mental breakdown.
Aina Khan, a family lawyer and specialist in Islamic law, tells the programme that although many faiths are affected, the law particularly disadvantages Muslims because most don’t get married in a registered place of worship, which is one of the criteria for a marriage to be legally recognised. In fact the majority of Muslims prefer to get married either at home or in a rented hotel or hall. She says the problem is growing and that the government is failing to do anything to address it, as they say data is needed on the extent and numbers of women affected. 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.
Two years ago the Law Commission produced a report calling for wholesale reform of the marriage act. Its author, Professor Nick Hopkins, tells the programme that what is needed is a law that works for the society we have today not the society we had in 1836. Britain’s marriage laws have changed as society has changed – for example people of the same sex can now get married. But unlike recognising the rights of people with different sexual orientations, it’s still failing to take into account the millions of people of different faiths living in modern, multicultural Britain.
Notes to Editors:
The Channel 4 survey was carried out by 20 Muslim female community researchers between December 2016 and September 2017, using a mix of face to face and phone interviews. Data were tabulated by ICM analysed from the responses of 923 participants from 14 cities across Britain - Glasgow, Newcastle, Preston, Bradford, Stockport, Manchester, Stoke on Trent, Leicester, Birmingham, Oxford, Cardiff, London, Bristol, Gloucester and Cambridge. The survey targeted women who had been married in the UK. In terms of age and ethnicity, our sample reflects what is known about the British Muslim population.