A rejoinder: Sharia marriage in the UK is toxic

By LSS member Daniel Anderson *

A recent piece in The Telegraph advocates for the State recognition of Sharia as the only way of assisting vulnerable Muslim women. The piece has so many flaws in it that it is difficult to know exactly where to begin.

The piece is the combined efforts of journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah and self-described ‘Islamic lawyer’ Aina Khan. We have met Ms Khan before.

But for those of you who don’t know who Myriam Francois-Cerrah is, well she is a white female convert to Islam who spends much of her time deriding those from different ethnic backgrounds who support secularism – and its concept of equal legal rights for all – as “native informants”.

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that this piece in The Telegraph is a dog’s breakfast. Nevertheless, in this rejoinder I wish to take you through what Myriam Francois-Cerrah, with Aina Khan as her apparent legal guide, claim.

Claim: The Quran prevents polygamous marriages

Although historically, Islam emerged in a polygamous society, it sought to dramatically restrict the practise and the Quran describes the Islamic ideal as a couple. Unsurprisingly, some ahistorical readings render the exceptional permission a blanket encouragement to fulfil a wandering eye.

In fact the Quran doesn’t dramatically restrict the practice of polygamous marriage. Instead it specifically endorses the practice of polygamy, for a man is permitted to take up to four wives. Sura 4:3 in the Quran states:

And if you be apprehensive that you will not be able to do justice to the orphans, you may marry two or three or four women whom you choose. But if you apprehend that you might not be able to do justice to them, then marry only one wife, or marry those who have fallen in your possession.”

That the Quran doesn’t restrict polygamy is readily apparent by its widespread practice in those countries which have Sharia as its legal system. And whilst the number of polygamous marriages in the UK is currently unknown, it is widely accepted to be rising and could now be as high as 20,000 in the Muslim community (see this Channel 4 documentary and this House of Commons Research Briefing).

So, having the State recognise Sharia will not prevent polygamous marriages. On the contrary, it will lead to its practice becoming even more common, to the obvious detriment of those Muslim women who find themselves in such marriages.

What is actually needed to prevent polygamous marriages, and to protect women subject to them, is for the State to properly enforce its laws. Bigamy is already a Criminal Offence under s57 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861. Perhaps this section is in need of an urgent update in light of the growing problem. Or perhaps it merely needs to be enforced.

Claim: By failing to have a recognised marriage in UK law, Muslim women have no legal rights

Sisterhood is all well and fine, but as Aina Khan, a leading Islamic family lawyer, pointed out in the latest reports about the rise of Sharia marriage in the UK, polygamy is often far from rosy for the women involved. “Although many people will be cohabiting or having mistresses, Muslims can’t do that. Polygamy leaves women vulnerable. If you’re cohabiting and you don’t know you’re (sic) rights, it is the same position whether you’re Muslim or not, because there are no cohabitee rights (..) because women have an Islamic marriage certificate, they feel protected, but it is a false sense of security – they think they can’t be made homeless overnight, but they can. This is a major issue.”

This keeps getting regurgitated by Ms Khan and her supporters. However, as I’ve previously mentioned, just because you do not have a recognised marriage in the UK doesn’t mean that you have no legal rights at all.

Failure to have a recognised marriage in UK law prevents you from having matrimonial rights (e.g. the automatic sharing of assets, tax breaks). This is true. However, all other legal rights remain. And these legal rights include, for example, the right to seek contact with children, the right to apply for benefits, the right to apply to courts for an injunction to prevent domestic violence, and the right to apply for housing assistance if faced with homelessness.

The rate of marriage in the UK continues to decline. Yet I do not see all those who are not married rushing to get married, for fear of having no legal rights whatsoever.

Claim: It is inherently difficult for Muslim women to have marriages recognised in UK law

The lack of recognition of Sharia law marriage – or nikah – the standard Muslim religious marriage ceremony – in British law is part of the reason so many Muslim marriages are going unregistered. While Christian couples who marry in a church, or Jewish couples who marry in a synagogue find their marriages automatically recognised under UK law, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and other religious groups are not afforded the same recognition, requiring them to undertake a separate, civil ceremony.

Actually, Muslim marriages are easily capable of being recognised in UK law. All that needs to happen is for a mosque to be authorised by the local registry office to carry out marriages. Alternatively, separate religious and civil ceremonies can take place.

As someone originally from multicultural Leicester, I am unaware of there being any difficulties with the Hindu or Sikh communities failing to have their marriages recognised under UK law. And as I write this, a Hindu friend of mine has recently had his civil ceremony, which is shortly due to be followed by his religious ceremony.

In reality it is not UK law which is at fault for Muslim marriages failing to be recognised. Instead it is the fault of those self-appointed Community Leaders™ who fail to make such simple arrangements, either ignorantly or deliberately.

Claim: UK law and Sharia are compatible

Polygamy and unregistered marriages are a serious concern. But stigmatising the religious law of any community and linking religious rituals to extremism does little but contribute to a toxic atmosphere in which all aspects of Muslim life are depicted as a problem in the UK. In reality, it is those like Aina Khan, working to create symbiosis between British and religious laws – including Sharia law – who are doing the most to assist those vulnerable women and children affected by this legal loophole.

Sharia and UK law are not compatible. Our highest court in the land, the then House of Lords, ruled as such in EM (Lebanon) (FC) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2008] UKHL 64. The judgment is well worth reading in full. And note in particular Lord Hope’s comments at paragraphs 5-6 on Sharia, in respect of Muslim women having to give up the custody of their children upon the children reaching the age of seven, solely because they are women.

All UK courts must follow any judgment from the UK’s highest court. Therefore if the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court) rules that Sharia is incompatible with UK law, all courts below must too.

Claim: Women’s groups have been supporting the recognition of Sharia by the State

Her campaign [Aina Khan’s campaign for recognition of Sharia] has widespread support from leading Muslim organisations as well as women’s groups, who view the issue as an equal rights matter, and recognise the danger of potential human rights abuses.

I am unaware of any women’s groups in support of the recognition of Sharia by the State. I am aware of plenty of women’s groups actively opposed to such recognition, such as the Southall Black Sisters, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, and One Law For All.

It would be a very strange women’s group indeed that advocated for Sharia when it regards a woman’s testimony as worth half that of a man’s. Sura 2.282 of the Quran states:

“And let two men from among you bear witness to all such documents [contracts of loans without interest]. But if two men be not available, there should be one man and two women to bear witness so that if one of the women forgets (anything), the other may remind her.”

And let’s not forget the infamous (and, thanks to the LSS, fortunately now defunct) Law Society Sharia Practice Note which actively promoted solicitors advising clients that Muslim women were only to receive half the inheritance of Muslim men. Did Ms Khan and Ms Francois-Cerrah oppose its publication on behalf of all Muslim women at the time? If they did they certainly were very quiet about it.

In conclusion

As will hopefully now be apparent, Sharia is toxic for Muslim women. Sharia is toxic for Muslim women because it endorses polygamy; because it advocates the automatic removal of the custody of their children at the age of seven; and because it generally views Muslim women as being worth half that of Muslim men. Sharia’s toxicity, as well as its incompatibility with UK law, has been confirmed by our highest court. And women’s groups are fully aware of Sharia’s toxicity, for no credible women’s group will support it.

In contrast, UK law treats Muslim women equally, like anyone else – regardless of their sex or religion. And Muslim women too can have their marriages recognised under UK law in order to have additional matrimonial rights.

The Telegraph piece is an utter disgrace. But it is the natural product of the combined efforts of a journalist who has a complete disregard for the facts and a lawyer who has a complete disregard for the law.

No State should recognise Sharia. The first group of people that Sharia is usually toxic for is Muslim women. Instead, Muslim women, like everyone else, deserve the benefits of a secular legal system, such as the one we have in the UK – and which we should defend no matter what.

* Daniel Anderson was an LSS member from Oct 2014 to Jul 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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