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Muslim 'wives' discover that they have no marriage rights

Report is ‘tip of the iceberg’, says Baroness Cox

A report by Aurat:Supporting Women, a West Midlands charity which supports victims of honour-based violence, seeks to expose the vulnerability which, it says, Muslim women living in Islamic 'marriages' in the UK are experiencing.

The report -  Equal and Free? 50 Muslim Women's Experiences of Marriage in Britain Today - states that the widespread practice of polygamy has left Muslim women without legal rights upon 'divorce', entirely dependent on their 'husbands' for financial support, and often unable to leave sham 'marriages' for fear of social ostracism or bringing shame to their family.

According to the report, many Muslim women are unsure of their legal rights and some women were even left believing that 'marriage' ceremonies were valid simply because they had taken place in the UK.

The report cites examples from women who told their stories to Aurat, including many women who were married, by their parents, to men who later turned out to have as many as three 'wives' living in different households.

In her foreword to the report, Baroness Cox writes that the shocking situation described in the research is "just the tip of the iceberg". She says that "there are, literally, countless more women in similar predicaments" as the women who volunteered their testimony.

The report notes that "in mainstream Islam, a husband does not have to undertake the same process as the wife when seeking a Talaq (an Islamic 'divorce'). He merely has to say 'I divorce you' three times, whereas a wife must meet various conditions and pay a fee."

The report found that women married under Nikah (Islamic 'marriage' ceremonies) "can suffer significant disadvantages because they lack legal protection".

Of the fifty women interviewed, 46 identified themselves as being married. Only ten percent of those marriages were legally recognised by English law. Though the sample size was small given the limited resources available, Baroness Cox writes that she believes there is "much truth" to the report and calls for a "systematic investigation" into the problem.

Over half of the women interviewed were unaware that they had fewer legal rights in their unrecognised religious 'marriages'. Two thirds of the women had been married in the family home, and "assumed that, because the ceremony had taken place in the UK, it automatically counted as a valid marriage." Two thirds of the 'married' women said that their 'husband' had more than one wife. 22 of the women reported that their 'husband' lives "with his other wife/wives part or full-time." According to the report, "nearly all" of the women whose 'husband' had additional wives were not supported financially by their husbands. Three quarters of this groups relied on state benefits to survive.

Aurat is calling for mosques and Muslim community leaders to inform families about the diminished rights women have under religious marriages that remain unrecognised by the state. It also urged professional and public bodies to be made more visible to Muslim women who may not be aware of the support services available.

In June 2014 Justice Minister Simon Hughes told the House of Commons:

"The Government is committed to the protection and promotion of the rights of women, families and children. This includes raising awareness of the legal consequences of 'religious only' marriages and encouraging mosques to register in order to be able to carry out legally recognised marriages in their various facilities."

For an article concerning Islamic marriage, divorce and dowry, written by Charlotte Proudman and published by Family Law Week in 2012, please click here.

The report by Aurat can be found on the website of the National Secular Society.