09:02, November 22 556 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-22 09:02:03
British law must recognise Muslim marriage ceremonies

When I had my nikah, my Islamic marriage ceremony, I considered myself a married man. In the presence of our nearest and dearest, squeezed into my partner’s front room in Grimsby, an imam led us through a series of vows and the signing of our marriage certificate before offering a prayer and declaring us husband and wife.

It was a beautiful, intimate and uniquely British ceremony, captured by British Muslim TV and featured on Channel 4’s documentary The Truth About Muslim Marriage. This groundbreaking film highlights the toxic fallout of our legal system’s failure to recognise an Islamic marriage as valid.

Three out of five of the British Muslim women surveyed did not, in addition to their nikah ceremonies, have a civil marriage, rendering them outside the legal protections and provisions that marriage brings. I can understand why. If you already consider yourself married, the only real reason to have a civil ceremony is to establish protections in case you divorce. But who thinks about divorce when they’re getting married?

It’s like when your car insurance company calls you to try to sell added legal protection in case you have an accident, but you decline because you’re pretty convinced you can drive just fine. In this case, however, no one calls you up. Instead, after having your marriage ceremony, you have to go through the extra rigmarole of giving notice, coughing up a bunch of cash and turning up to the registration office (something my wife and I had the foresight to do, knowing our marriage wasn’t yet valid in the eyes of the law). It’s no surprise to me, though, that only a fifth of British Muslims under 25 surveyed had a civil ceremony in addition to their nikah.

In 1753 the Marriage Act limited ceremonies to registered buildings in order to clamp down on all the secret marriages taking place. Up until this act was passed, which notably made an exception for Quakers and Jewish people, ordained ministers could conduct ceremonies anywhere. This law, which sought to protect women in the 18th century, today renders hundreds of thousands of women outside the protection of our courts.

Article 9 of the Human Rights Act (1998) enshrines for every UK citizen the “freedom to exercise religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. The only way this act can be realised in our ever-evolving society is for the law to accommodate different religious groups and the personal and communal needs of their adherents – on the proviso, of course, that these do not encroach upon the rights of others.

If the UK parliament could accommodate the legal needs of Quakers marrying 250 years ago, is it too much to ask parliament to consider the needs of newer faith communities that are part of the fabric of British society today?

What Muslims are asking for is not without very explicit precedent. In the documentary, Rabbi Herschel Gluck described British Jews benefiting from a marriage “package deal”, going on to say: “When you get married in Jewish law, you’re also getting married in civil law. It does say to a community that you belong.” Furthermore, for centuries British authorities working with Muslim lawmakers had devised an entire legal system for governing Muslim territories under British colonial rule. Anglo-Muhammadan law was not without its issues, but the suggestion that Islamic law and the British legal system are mutually exclusive is just false.

Our government must have the judiciousness to cut through all the furore devised to denigrate several integral aspects of Islam. This is far from being a new debate. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, explicitly advocated integrating the legitimate legal needs of minority religious groups, specifically Muslims, within the British legal system.

The reality is that 21st-century Britain is a kaleidoscope of cultures, a melting pot held together by our unique legal system. Far from the inflexible French model of secularism, secular law in our progressively plural society protects and embraces Britain’s diversity and thus subverts, in theory, the marginalisation of citizens who hold on to multiple identities.

What makes Britain truly great is that my being a citizen here does not require me to abandon any facet of my Muslim identity; nor does my being Muslim necessitate my abandoning the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship. Far from being at odds with each other, the identities go hand in hand. Opinion polls have found 83% of Muslims “proud to be a British citizen”, 4% higher than the figure for the population as a whole.

Muslims are not just in Britain: we are of Britain. And, quite frankly, we’ve had enough of being made to feel like intruders or imposters by an irresponsible media – or, in this case, 18th-century laws that leave so many women vulnerable to exploitation.

The government has long advocated a healthier integration of British Muslims within wider society. Well, genuine integration is more than a two-way street: it’s a spaghetti junction, and I’m not for a second suggesting the process will be easy.

What sort of inclusive message is the government sending to Muslims seeking to protect the more vulnerable amid their communities, when they face so many reasons to feel excluded from society? Yes, there are a lot of nuances to be explored, including conflicting voices from within the Muslim community itself. But as it stands, women in particular are losing out from the protection that the law intends for them.

The real truth about Muslim marriages? They’re the same as everyone else’s and it’s high time the law recognised them as such.

Bilal Hassam is creative director at British Muslim TV