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Today the Westminster think tank Civitas publishes a major report into the legal rights of Muslim women in England and Wales, based on interviews with survivors of abuse, activists and academics.
Our research suggests that a significant number of Muslim women – possibly over 60% – are in religious-only (sharia) marriages in the UK without the protection of a civil union, many of whom are unaware that they do not have the same legal rights that other communities enjoy.
This is a serious problem. In some cases, it means that men are able to dodge laws that make bigamy and polygamy illegal by marrying multiple women in ceremonies that are purely religious, but not civilly recognised – there may be as many as 20,000 polygamous unions that remain unknown to the law in Britain. As a result, the possibility of a sudden divorce leaves women and their children in a precarious position. Lacking stability and certainty, women can find it difficult to escape situations of domestic and sexual abuse, or suddenly find themselves without any entitlement to shared assets or basic marital rights.
Civil courts are unable to intervene, and many women face financial exploitation or are forced to accept informal custody arrangements as the price of a religious divorce, often throwing the children into a safeguarding nightmare. In some cases, experiences of sharia councils have added insult to injury, with reports of dismissive attitudes towards abuse, or encouraging women to reconcile with abusive partners.
For over a decade, successive governments have been made aware of this problem by both domestic activists and the international community calling for legislative reform. Baroness Cox alone has proposed a number of bills that have been unsuccessful. The Casey Review into opportunity and integration (2016), the 2018 Independent Review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales, the Integrated Communities Strategy green paper (2018) and Council of Europe Resolution 2253 (2019) have all called for the government to respond meaningfully, but they haven’t.
Despite our obligations under international law, under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and under the Istanbul Convention, which we signed in 2012, nothing has been done. Meanwhile every day women are suffering the consequences.
One woman was reported as saying “like me, many Muslim women are asylum seekers. They have fled their country for a safe life, they are running away from oppression and persecution that they suffered in their home country. They should not arrive in the UK to be met with further oppression through the operation of Sharia law”.
The complex socio-cultural situation can make it very difficult for these women to escape horrific situations of domestic and sexual abuse. When their marriage breaks down they find they have no marital rights under British law; some have found themselves destitute, suicidal and vulnerable.
There is certainly no quick fix to this complex problem, but there are obvious steps that must be taken. Amending marriage legislation – namely the Marriage Act 1949 – to make the registration of all marriages mandatory in England and Wales would be a start. This would ensure that women have access to their legal rights, irrespective of which religious community they belong to. Extending the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 to cover Islamic divorces would go some way to protecting Muslim women, as was previously done for the Jewish community. This allows a judge to withhold civil dissolution of a marriage until a religious divorce is granted – preventing women getting stuck without a religious divorce and unable to move on, or being forced into undesirable and discriminatory arrangements in exchange for the divorce. Interviewees also agreed broadly on the need for a nationwide education campaign to raise awareness of marital rights and the consequences of religious-only marriages, as was previously introduced for the issue of Female Genital Mutilation.
These are simple baby steps – why does the government seem to have no appetite to respond?
While there are many factors at play, some interviewees have suggested that the government and politicians are reluctant to involve themselves in religious affairs through fear of being called Islamophobic, or of attacking a particular community. One survivor of forced marriage, Fozia Rashid, told me that she felt progress in women’s rights was being held back by a lack of social and political self-confidence and fear. In her own experience, she felt let down and unsupported by the UK. But in their reluctance, they are putting Muslim women’s lives at risk.
This is an issue of equality before the law – of real empowerment. Where are the feminists, when Baroness Cox said the situation would “make the Suffragettes turn in their graves”? Why are the government not running to their defence? Where are the Emma Watsons?
Fear induced by identity politics should not outweigh these women’s rights to equality before the law. In the words of Swiss-Yemeni academic Dr Elham Manea, who kindly wrote the forward for this report, “Now is the time to set the record straight”.
Emma Webb is the Director of the Forum on Integration, Democracy and Extremism (FIDE) at Civitas think tank and author of Fallen Through the Cracks: Unregistered Islamic Marriages in England and Wales, and the Future of Legislative Reform (2020).
Civitas: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society is an independent, cross-party think tank which seeks to facilitate informed public debate. We search for solutions to social and economic problems unconstrained by the short-term priorities of political parties or conventional wisdom.