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Important judgement on Muslim marriage challenged

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Southall Black Sisters, One Law for All, Sharia courts, Muslim marriage, Matrimonial Law, “This is not about recognising religious marriages; it is about the state guaranteeing equality to all before the law.”

On 31 July 2018, Mr Justice Williams, a family court judge, decided that Nasreen Akhter was entitled to a decree of nullity of marriage, following the break-up of her 18-year marriage.

She had had a nikah ceremony, a Muslim marriage contract between herself and Mohammed Khan.

Although Ms Akhter wanted a civil marriage and believed one would take place, it never happened because her husband refused to also have a civil marriage.

The couple, who have four children, were widely recognised as married in Britain and the UAE, where they lived from 2005 to 2011, for tax and other purposes.

But when the marriage broke down – it is suggested that he wanted to take another wife – Khan said that he owed his wife nothing because their relationship constituted a ‘non-marriage’.

The judge had ruled that an estranged couple’s Islamic faith marriage fell within the scope of English matrimonial law.

Mr Khan, 46, wanted to block a divorce application on the basis that they are not legally married under English law.

But Mrs Akhter, 46, said the Islamic faith marriage was valid as was her application for divorce.

Businessman Mr Khan had wanted to stop solicitor Ms Akhter staging a fight over money.

In court, Mr Justice Williams concluded that in the interests of human rights and justice, the marriage should be recognised as ‘void’.

He granted Ms Akhter a decree of nullity, which allows her to claim the financial remedies such as maintenance to which she may be entitled to following the break-up of her marriage.

But the Attorney-General, Geoffrey Cox QC, on behalf of the government, has intervened in this case and will argue that Mr Justice Williams was wrong to recognise the marriage as ‘void’.

The case is being heard in the Supreme Court on 13 and 14 November.

If the government’s appeal is successful, the consequences for minority, especially Muslim women, will be profoundly discriminatory.

Christian women in a similar situation would be able to have their marriages declared ‘void’, and thus have access to financial remedies from the courts, but women who have married in another religious system may not.

Speaking about the importance of this case, Pragna Patel, of Southall Black Sisters, said: “If this appeal is upheld, it will force Muslim and other women to turn to Sharia ‘courts’ that already cause significant harm to women and children.

“If this appeal succeeds then the government will succeed in outsourcing justice to unaccountable and fundamentalist inspired community based systems of arbitration.

“This amounts to an endorsement of parallel legal systems and an abrogation of its own legal obligations to uphold principles of the rule of law.

“This is not about recognising religious marriages; it is about the state guaranteeing equality to all before the law.”

Southall Black Sister’s work addresses issues of multiple or intersectional discrimination, involving the simultaneous experience of race, sex and other forms of discrimination.

The bulk of this work is directed at assisting women and children – the overwhelming victims of domestic and other forms of gender-related violence – obtain effective protection and assert their fundamental human rights.

Maryam Namazie, of One Law for All, said: “Mr Justice Williams’ decision to consider a Sharia marriage a void marriage is an important one for women’s rights.

“It doesn’t recognise the Sharia marriage but by deeming it annulled, opens the way for Muslim women to secure financial remedies if they so choose where none would otherwise be available.

“Unsurprisingly, the government has appealed this crucial decision.

“The government is always perfectly happy to relegate minority women to kangaroo courts and faith-based parallel legal systems in order to appease fundamentalists and manage minority communities at the expense of women’s rights.

“If the appeal is upheld, it will further discrimination against minority women.”

The One Law for All Campaign was launched on 10 December 2008, International Human Rights Day, to call on the UK government to recognise that Sharia and religious courts are arbitrary and discriminatory against women and children in particular and that citizenship and human rights are non-negotiable.

The campaign aims to end Sharia and all religious courts on the basis that they work against, and not for, equality and human rights.

Gita Sahgal, also of One Law for All, said: “The One Law for All campaign’s research has shown that the collapse of civil marriages in Muslim communities has been used to spread the influence of sharia ‘courts’.

“Women are trapped in a legal limbo unable to divorce, and unable to remarry. We believe all marriages must be registered; but we support this judgement which voids the Muslim marriage contract.

“The government, which has failed to act against sharia councils, is now threatening to send women back to them, by closing off this remedy.”

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