A growing number of young Muslims in the UK are entering marriages that are not legally recognised, BBC Asian Network has found. This is because couples are having an Islamic wedding without the civil ceremony needed for the marriage to be recognised under British law.
By Divya Talwar
Ms Khan says unregistered Muslim marriages are on the increase
Shaheeda Khan married her fiance in a traditional Islamic religious ceremony, the nikah, at her home in Birmingham.
After the wedding the couple moved to London where they started to build a life and home together but, 13 months into the marriage, Shaheeda realised that her nikah was not legally valid.
”I had to show a marriage certificate when I was enrolling at university. It was then I realised I didn’t have one and it came as a big shock to me,” she said.
Shaheeda, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said she asked her husband to register their marriage but he was against the idea.
A few months later she came home and found that the locks to her front door had been changed and that she had been thrown out of her home.
„I was homeless. I took legal action but I got nothing,” explained Shaheeda. „I had been paying the mortgage on our home but the house was not in my name so I lost everything.”
Eventually, Shaheeda moved back home with her family.
”It was as though the marriage had never happened. It was the worst time of my life,” she added.
Family lawyer Aina Khan says that she is dealing with an increasing number of cases like Shaheeda’s.
„It’s a rising trend for Muslim couples to have marriages that are not legally recognised,” explained Ms Khan.
”The problem is extremely widespread and it’s an increasing timebomb because it’s affecting mostly young Muslims, who are under 30 or in their early 30s.”
Ms Khan says that the individuals have no legal marital rights if the marriage ends or if a partner dies.
I know of cases where men have taken on several wives because they have just had the nikah with each partner
Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui
She said: ”My colleagues and I are having to deal with hundreds of cases where things have gone wrong because the wedding has not been registered.
„Because the couples only have co-habitant rights, it is extremely expensive and complicated to use the law to get the individuals any justice once the marriage ends.”
Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the head of Britain’s Muslim Parliament, says the lives of many Muslim women are being ruined because their Islamic marriages are not legally recognised.
”It is a major problem in the community,” insisted Dr Siddiqui. „But it is very difficult to put an exact figure on the scale of this because there are no statistics. It could be in its hundreds if not thousands.”
Shaista Gohir is the head of the UK’s Muslim Women’s Network. She says the problem arises, in some cases, out of ignorance as many young Muslims believe that the nikah is legally binding.
”If a couple has a nikah in a Muslim country then the marriage is recognised under UK law. But many do not realise that this is not the case if the nikah is conducted in this country,” she explained.
However, Ms Gohir said, some couples preferred to wait and „test out” the marriage before they had their civil ceremony.
This was something Leicester couple Saila and Riaz Choudary, both 25, wanted to do. They had their Nikah before waiting more than a year until their civil marriage.
”I wanted to be sure before I committed to the civil ceremony,” said Saila.
”A divorce costs a lot of money and I wanted to avoid all that hassle if the marriage didn’t end up working.”
Ms Gohir says many couples say they will register their marriage later, but later never comes.
Dr Siddiqiui added that he believed some Muslim women were being exploited as their partners promised them a civil wedding after the nikah only to refuse to go ahead with it.
”This allows Muslim men to control their wives because they can threaten to leave them and end the Islamic marriage by just saying the words ‘divorce, divorce divorce’ to her,” he said.
Riaz and Saila both agreed to wait to get a civil ceremony
”It also enables some men to commit polygamy. I know of cases where men have taken on several wives because they have just had the nikah with each partner.”
He wants Muslim women to protect themselves by always having a civil ceremony before the nikah and is also calling for all mosques to become registered to conduct civil marriages.
This would then allow the couple to have the nikah and registry at the same time under one roof.
”The problem is that only a handful of mosques across the country are registering themselves,” said Dr Saddiqiui.
”I don’t know why this is the case because it is very simple to do – all they need to do is fill out a form.
”Religious leaders must take a bigger responsibility to protect many Muslim women who are unnecessarily suffering.”