Marriage on record

Many Muslim couples hold nikah ceremonies but fail to register their marriages in the UK. These couples now risk their marriages not being recognised by English law

The Court of Appeal has found that Islamic marriages are not officially recognised in the UK if the couple did not register their marriage with the civil authorities. This goes against a 2018 ruling of the High Court which had declared that nikah ceremonies fall within English law. The reversal of the verdict has left thousands of British couples in a legal loophole where their marriages are not recognised by law if they did not register it with the authorities in the UK.

Many couples only hold nikah ceremonies which are conducted by imams or qazis and fail to register their marriages with the UK authorities. These couples now risk their marriages not being recognised as per English law.

This can have disastrous consequences for partners who wish to end the marriage and claim alimony and child support as under the latest ruling of the Court of Appeal, partners lose this right if they did not register their marriage.

Christian and Jewish couples too are legally obligated to include a civil union in the UK alongside their religious ceremonies. A government review into Sharia Law in 2017 had advised that Islamic marriages should be in line with marriages of other religions.

A poll run by Channel 4 news has shown that up to 61 per cent of Muslim couples have not registered their marriages with the civil authorities in the UK. This leaves the women extremely vulnerable in the event of divorce since they will not be legally entitled to financial support from (former) their partners.

Under the new ruling, Muslim wives are unable to go to family court to seek a division of assets including the spouse’s home or pension. They are also vulnerable to ‘triple talaq’ which means that their husbands can divorce them by saying ‘tsalaq’ thrice which immediately dissolves the marriages.

The Channel 4 poll also revealed that more than 75 per cent of Muslim women wanted to legally register their marriage but their choice wasn’t respected by the families.

Mrs Akhter whose appeal was rejected and resulted in this new law, says she had wanted to register the marriage with her husband but the family had refused to do so. According to the judges of the Court of Appeal, Mrs Akhter’s ceremony was ‘a non-qualifying ceremony’ because it was not performed in a building registered for weddings, no certificates had been issued and no registrar was present.

“The parties were not marrying under the provisions of English law”, according to the judges of the Court of Appeal.

Commenting on the decision, Sheikh Asif Salam, principal solicitor of Salam & Co Solicitor’s Ltd said, “There’s a political angle which is why the Muslim community have felt that the women have not been given their rights by entering into just a nikah but as far as the legal point of view is concerned, this decision is correct because the judges are bound by Law.

He went on to add that “we cannot expect the courts to equate the nikah to the concept of registered marriage. It is for the Parliament to decide.” He also mentioned that this issue was not only being faced by Muslim women but also other women who were living as unmarried partners who were in the same legal loophole. “Parliament should look into the legality of the marriage. Due to their inaction, the institution of marriage is being affected.”

The rise of White Nationalism and racist crimes have also irked Muslims in the UK who fear that the state is now catering more to ‘white’ citizens and is discriminatory towards the rest.

Many women in the UK are arguing that there are racial undertones to this decision. They believe that they have been severely disadvantaged simply because of their identity especially in a circumstance where they did not have complete control over the dynamics of the marriage ceremonies.

Ruskshana Noor faced a similar problem because she entered a nikah-only marriage which fell apart. While judges in family courts usually divide assets 50/50 between the partners, Rukshana was forced to go the civil court where she had to prove her financial contribution in her family home. This process cost her over £100,000 and took more than five years.

The larger Muslim community has found a lot of problems with this decision primarily because it is considered fundamentally biased against Muslim women.

Bana Gora of the Bradford-based Muslim Women’s Council says that she has received calls from women daily inquiring about their marriage rights.

“Almost half of these calls are from women in unregistered marriages,” she said. “Bradford is projected to have the largest Muslim population in the country by 2030, a community which will be vulnerable to the downfall of unregistered marriages, so it’s incredibly important for men and women in our community to know their rights.”

Other voices within the community are more understanding of the changes in law and hope to find solutions rather than focusing on problems. According to Raghad Altikriti who serves as the president of the Muslim Association of Britain, many Islamic Centres in the UK have made civil registration a condition of nikah marriage. Commenting on the appeal court ruling, she said it provided an “opportunity to continue the discussion to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected by facilitating a comprehensive system that incorporates the needs of all”

There are over 3 million Muslim citizens in the United Kingdom which accounts for over 5 per cent of the total population. The decision of the Court of Appeal has fundamentally affected the community which will have to come up with innovative solutions to this newly created dilemma.

One possible solution could be to register their marriages if they’ve conducted a nikah only marriage. Another solution could be to lobby Muslims MPs to ensure that the law applies only to future marriages and the couples which have had a nikah-only marriage before a certain date can be recognised.

There are some voices within the Muslim community which believe that Britain has become more intolerant of diversity in the run up to Brexit. The rise of White Nationalism and racist crimes have also irked Muslims in the UK who fear that the state is now catering more to ‘white’ citizens and is discriminatory towards the rest – those who do not appear to be ‘ethnically British’.

Such measures can alienate the 3 million strong Muslim community.

The writers are London-based journalists.

UK Muslim couples’ marriages at risk if they held nikah but did not register officially