British women are increasingly being pressured into polygamous relationships or left without child support when relationships break up because UK law does not offer adequate protection to spouses in religious marriages, campaigners have warned.
Activists say there is a growing problem of men “marrying” women in religious ceremonies but refusing to legally register the unions – and subsequently avoiding the financial and other duties owed to a spouse.
Women are being left to go through religious courts, which make rulings that force them to stay with their partners even when they are unhappy, or rule them unable to claim money or property from their de facto husbands after marriages dissolve.
The warnings come after the government intervened via the attorney general in a landmark case last week in an attempt to overturn a family court judge’s decision that a woman was entitled to apply for maintenance payments despite the fact they were not legally married.
Nasreen Akhter had a nikah, which is an Islamic marriage ceremony, that led to a Muslim marriage contract between herself and Mohammed Khan.
The couple, who were married for 18 years and have four children together, were deemed to be married in the UK and the United Arab Emirates, where they lived from 2005 to 2011, for tax reasons and other purposes.
Ms Akhter, a 47-year-old solicitor, said she was keen to have a civil marriage and presumed they would do so, but her husband refused. She alleges their relationship dissolved after he said he wanted to take another wife.
Mr Khan, a businessman who is also 47, implied he did not owe his wife anything by claiming their nearly two-decade-long relationship constituted a “non-marriage”.
However, Mr Justice Williams’ ruling at the High Court in London in July 2018 led to Ms Akhter being entitled to apply for maintenance.
“The wife’s evidence of how the husband put her under pressure saying that Islam permitted polygamy and that she was a bad Muslim and was rejecting the word of God shows a degree of emotional manipulation that is most unattractive,” he said in the judgement.
The government intervened in the case, with lawyers for attorney general Geoffrey Cox arguing the verdict should be overturned. A final ruling is expected within a few months.
Southall Black Sisters, which supports black and minority ethnic women, decided to get involved in the case as they believe it has wider public importance.
Pragna Patel, the organisation’s director, said: “We are absolutely flabbergasted and staggered that the government has stepped in. We are at a loss as to why the government feels it needs to intervene in a just judgement. The first court case judge came to the right conclusion in finding a remedy for a woman in her situation.
“We come across lots of women in similar situations. It is a growing and widespread problem. It also impacts on Hindu and Sikh women.
“When women go to sharia courts or religious ‘courts’, they often make rulings to the detriment of women and try and force women to stay in marriages. These institutions are misogynistic, patriarchal and anti-democratic. These institutions are more and more governing women’s rights. If the law goes against us, it will lock women out of the civil justice system.”
Ms Patel argued “growing fundamentalist norms” in the Muslim community and other minority groups were making the problem worse – saying “religious power” is at the centre of the issue, and the problem also rests with the wider community, who are fostering a climate in which people feel obliged to follow religious, rather than civil law.
Muslim couples getting married in the UK should be legally required to civilly register their union before or during the Islamic ceremony and obstacles stopping Muslim women from accessing justice must be removed, the Council of Europe said in January.
Olive Craig, a solicitor who specialises in family law that gives legal advice to women on the Rights of Women family law advice line, said there are increasing numbers of cases like Ms Akhter’s.
She said: “It is a growing and prevalent problem. When women are not able to access courts in England and Wales, there are many different ways perpetrators are able to manipulate the system to disadvantage women – whether that is failing to expose financial assets or failing to comply with family court financial orders to pay maintenance.
“There has been a history of the courts being able to grant this type of assistance when it was the intention that the marriage would be recognised but the formalities were not completed.”
Maryam Namazie, of campaign group One Law for All, said: “The government is always perfectly happy to relegate minority women to kangaroo courts and faith-based parallel legal systems in order to manage minority communities at the expense of women’s rights. If the appeal is upheld, it will further discrimination against minority women.”
A survey in 2017 discovered almost all married Muslim women in the UK had a nikah and almost two-thirds had not had a different civil ceremony.
Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre, the leading national umbrella organisation for the women’s sector in the UK, backed campaigners.
She said: “The law and human rights for all women must be honoured and our society should ensure all citizens enjoy the protections of our laws. Religion should not become a barrier to justice.”
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