A survey has found that nearly two thirds of women who have had traditional Muslim marriage ceremonies in the UK are not in fact legally married. While 99% of women surveyed partook in a religious Nikah ceremony, a civil registry ceremony was never performed for 61% of respondents -depriving them of the legal protections of marriage.
The research was undertaken for the Channel 4 documentary The Truth About Muslim Marriage which, per its producers, "examines whether Britain’s centuries old marriage law needs to be updated to reflect and better serve today’s multicultural, multi-faith society".
Community researchers spoke to 923 women across 14 UK cities and found that 78% wanted their marriages to be legally recognised. This figure is unsurprising, as failure to civilly register a marriage can have serious ramifications in in the event of relationship breakdown.
In the absence of a legally recognised marriage, parties have no recourse to the family courts when it comes to the division of assets. Instead, they must make an application to the civil court and prove their financial contribution to any property where, unlike with divorce, there is no guaranteed entitlement to financial provision.
The situation is rendered bleaker still when one considers that an Islamic marriage can ended without the wife’s consent. Under Sharia law, a marriage can be terminated by the husband through enactment of the triple talaq. Talaq divorces are instantaneous and unilateral; if a man wishes to end his marriage, he can do so simply by pronouncing ’talaq’ three times. As news reports from across the world have shown, some men have been particularly creative in their delivery of the talaq, utilising postcards, Skype and even WhatsApp to end their marriages.
A talaq made in the UK is not legally recognised here -meaning that a divorce can must be obtained through the family courts before the parties are free from the rights and responsibilities of marriage, allowing them to remarry. However, a legal divorce can of course only be sought if the marriage was legally binding. Without it, women are left vulnerable, afforded little protection by both the UK justice system and Sharia councils.
Speaking to The Guardian, Islamic law specialist Aina Khan said:
“My experience of 25 years as a lawyer specialising in Islamic marriage and divorce is that this is not only a major problem but a growing problem. My anecdotal evidence suggests that in the last five years, the proportion of people under 40 having nikah-only marriages is as high as 80%.”
Ms Khan launched the "Register Our Marriage" campaign, which lobbies for reform of the Marriage Act 1949 to make it compulsory for all marriages to be registered. Currently, under section 26 of the Act, Church of England, Jewish and Quaker weddings are the only religious ceremonies that automatically confer legally married status, providing certain conditions are satisfied.
Other religious buildings, such as mosques, gurdwaras, and Roman Catholic churches have to be specifically registered as wedding venues, or else a separate ceremony must take place in a civil wedding venues. It is believed that very few Islamic places of worship have completed the necessary registration.
In 2015, the Law Commission recommended “streamlining the current routes into marriage in a way that could accommodate religious and non-religious marriages”, which “could include the introduction of universal civil preliminaries”. This would require all couples to give notice to the registry office prior to getting married. The proposal is currently awaiting a government decision on implementation.