The recent High Court ruling in the divorce case involving Nasreen Akhtar and her husband, Mohammed Shabaz Khan, may very well open the door to number of similar cases where Muslim women who underwent Islamic faith marriages only and are now in unhappy marriages and wish to divorce.
The couple had undergone an Islamic faith marriage known as a nikah, nearly 20 years ago and have a family of four children. Nasreen Akhtar, a solicitor, contends that she did this with the expectation of also having a civil marriage which her husband suggests was not the case. The problem Nasreen had is that a nikah marriage is not legally recognised, which means that there is no right of divorce or legal protection for financial provision if the marriage ends, unless they have a second civil marriage which is recognised in English law. Two years ago Nasreen decided to file for divorce through the courts despite knowing her marriage was not recognised in English law. Mr. Khan responded by attempting to prevent the divorce on the basis that the marriage was not recognised in law.
The judge felt that it was inappropriate to regard the marriage as non-existent or a non-marriage, choosing instead to regard it as void which enabled him nullify the marriage and grant a decree of nullity. The judge explained that the couple were married in 1998, regarded themselves as a married couple, introduced each other as husband and wife and were considered by others as a married couple. This decision means that Nasreen can now claim financial support from her estranged husband in the same way as she would have been able to had she been married in a legally recognised ceremony. She can claim for maintenance, a share of any pension and property can be transferred to her. It is possible that her husband may wish to appeal the decision and the High Court's decision may be overturned. At the moment there is some hope for Muslim women trapped in an unhappy or abusive marriage.
According to a report on Sharia Councils commissioned by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, many Muslim women are unaware that their Islamic marriage does not convey the same legal protection as Christian, Quaker and Jewish marriages, the forms of marriage indicated in the 1949 Marriage Act, all others have no weight in law. Furthermore, when they realised their position at least three quarters of the women wanted their marriage to be legalised. Another source calculates that there may be as many as 100,000 Islamic marriages that are not legally recognised in English law. The Bradford Muslim Women's Council reports that they receive calls on a daily basis from women making enquiries about marriage rights and roughly half of the enquirers are in marriages that are not legalised.
A Channel 4 documentary also conducted a survey using female Muslim researchers who questioned 923 women in 14 cities in Britain and found that nearly all Muslim women had a nikah but 61% of them had not gone through a civil ceremony to legalise their marriage in English law. Furthermore the findings repeated the sentiment found in other surveys that at least three quarters of the women wanted their marriage to be legalised, particularly as Islamic marriage permits the husband (not the wife) to divorce using "talaq" which allows instant divorce if the husband invokes it which leaves the wife in an extremely vulnerable position. Another source calculates that there may be as many as 100,000 Islamic marriages that are not legally recognised in English law. The Bradford Muslim Women's Council reports that they receive calls on a daily basis from women making enquiries about marriage rights and roughly half of the enquirers are in marriages that are not legalised.
There are more than 3 million Muslims in the UK, approximately 5% of the total population and the married women deserve the same protections in their marriages as the general population.
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