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Government gives priority to the wishes of religious leaders

Government gives priority to the wishes of religious leaders



It has long been said, and written, that those who stand in front of a sharia tribunal to have their marriages and divorces ruled upon, are doing so by choice.  “It is their right” is a frequent response.

There are of course several issues of concern that stem from this approach; one question to be answered is whether or not having “marriage” conducted outside the law, according to a deeply gender discriminatory religious system, should in fact be a choice.  Sharia Watch believes it should not, and that all people should be subject to the same laws – those of England and Wales, or Scotland or Northern Ireland as appropriate – and this should apply in the matter of marriage and divorce also.

Of course people have a right to a religious marriage to accompany their civil marriage, and in most cases, religious places of worship are appropriately registered so that marriages carried out there become civil marriages at the time of solemnisation.  This, however, is not the case in many mosques.

According to a report in the Guardian in 2012, only one in ten mosques in Britain is registered to conduct civil marriages.  Sara Khan wrote “few British Muslim marriages have been registered under British law, which means that when the relationship breaks down the female has little if any spousal rights. This is an outrage, condemning thousands of women to a life stuck in limbo and it is time to take action to end this discrimination.”  She went on to claim “It is estimated that 70-75% of Muslim marriages in the UK have not been registered under the Marriage Act. Muslim women and their children have been left open to abuse when they are only registered as having the rights of co-habitants.”

Given this situation, one might expect that the very least the government would be willing to do is to inform women entering in to religious marriages, what the consequences are of that marriage not being registered, so that she may in fact make a choice – an informed choice.  But recent efforts by the heroic Baroness Cox to ensure that this happens have been dismissed by the government lest it “undermine” religious leaders.

During the debate on the Anti-Social Behaviour and Policing Bill (now Act), which among other things criminalised forced marriage, Baroness Cox submitted an amendment in the House of Lords asking that a provision be included that would “make it an offence to solemnise a marriage in England and Wales according to the rites of any religion or belief in circumstances where the marriage is not also solemnised as a legal marriage under the terms of the Marriage Act 1949 if either or both parties to the marriage wrongly believe that they are married according to the law simply because they have been through a religious ceremony.”  What this sought to address was the danger that many women are duped in to believing they are married under the law of England and Wales, only to find, upon divorce, that they have little to no rights in terms of finance or property – rights guaranteed under English law. - page 37

Lady Cox added: “The amendment would tackle the problem that arises in some communities where those getting married, particularly women who are not familiar with English law or the customs of this country, undergo a religious marriage without understanding that they are not married according to English law. They are therefore unaware that they are without any legal protection.”  She further argued that in cases where a legal marriage were not in fact taking place, merely a religious one, that both parties be informed of this fact, and its potential consequences. 

Finally, she stated:  “Many vulnerable women have described how they have celebrated a religious marriage without an accompanying civil marriage, without realising the implications. If there is a subsequent breakdown of the marriage, because their marriage is not legally recognised, these women are unable to access any legal redress. Many have told me that had they known this before entering into the religious marriage, they would have ensured that a civil marriage ceremony as well as the religious ceremony was conducted. Others have described how they have faced intense pressure from those directly involved with the marriage not to accept the provisions of a legally recognised marriage but to be content with a religious marriage only.”

This, one would assume, is in keeping with genuine choice, and allows women – married under sharia laws only – to make that choice in the full knowledge of the ramifications.

This was rejected.

The government’s response was provided by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon.  As has been the case with regard to the misogynistic influence of sharia tribunals, the government insisted that the law as it stands is sufficient.  The usual response of the government has been to insist that women who are abused or lied to in a sharia council or tribunal, such as the undercover reporter on BBC’s Panorama, who was falsely informed she would lose her home if she reported domestic violence (see here), have recourse to the laws of England and Wales should they wish to seek them.  The government of course has spectacularly missed the point.  Many of the women who end up in a sharia council simply do not know that they have recourse to the law, nor do they know their rights under that law, nor in many cases will they have the confidence to demand those rights. 

This approach is the equivalent of allowing crimes to be committed because the victims of crime can approach the law afterwards if they wish.

The same course was taken in response to Lady Cox’s amendment, and yet again it misses the point.  Lord Ahmad stated:  “If the marriage purports to be in accordance with the provisions of the Marriage Act but does not fully comply with those provisions, it may be void under Section 11(a) of Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. This section enables a party to the marriage to apply to the court for a decree of nullity and the court is able to make orders in respect of children and the division of property in the same way as on divorce. We believe that this will provide protection for some of the couples whom the noble Baroness seeks to protect with her amendment.”  Again, an identical problem arises.  In order to “apply to the court for a decree of nullity”, one must be aware that one can do so, must have the confidence to do so, and must not be afraid to do so – something which simply cannot be guaranteed.

Furthermore, if the government is serious about protecting women (and men) from the consequences of unregistered marriage, and if it is serious about the protection provisions that already exist under the law, then surely Baroness Cox’s argument that people be informed of their rights should be entirely uncontroversial.  But this has been dismissed.  In short, the government objects to the parties being informed of the very rights that it insists they can later rely on.

Why would it do this?  Why would the government argue that the legal protections already in existence should not be made clear to the parties?

Lord Ahmad explains: “We want to ensure that couples seeking a religious marriage are aware of the need to have a civil marriage as well. If this is to be achieved, it must be with the support of religious leaders and must not be seen as an attempt to dictate to them or undermine them.”  But it is clear from the reply that the government does not in fact want to ensure that couples are aware of the need of a civil marriage, because it is simultaneously dismisses Lady Cox’s attempts to do just that. 

Secondly, it is equally clear that the will of religious leaders is the reason for the government's position.  The wishes of the religious leaders is thus prioritised over the rights of the parties.

The truth is that it is in fact the intention of many religious leaders, particularly those who lead extremist and Islamist-dominated mosques and sharia councils, to deny to the parties (especially women) their rights under English law, and to deny them access to and information about those rights.  The reason for this is that Islamists in Britain are actively seeking exclusive “jurisdiction” over family law and they deliberately seek to exclude English law from family law matters; thereby increasing their own power over Muslim communities and effectively creating a parallel system under their authority.

This we have shown to be the case over and over again.  Sharia tribunals and councils in Britain are dealing not only in divorce but in criminal matters such as marital rape and domestic violence also – completely without regard to English law.  Indeed, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (a major sharia network in Britain) declared its intention to seek exclusive jurisdiction over domestic violence cases involving Muslim couples.  Its spokesman even stated that the group was involved in discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service to achieve this (which the CPS denied).  It must be kept in mind that under sharia law, a man may beat his wife, and as such the intention is to remove all protections from marital violence for Muslim women.  This of course creates a situation where it is a crime to beat a non-Muslim woman, but not a crime to beat a Muslim woman. 

In taking this approach, the government yet again ignores the wishes of many Muslim women themselves, including Sara Khan –who supports Baroness Cox’s efforts – and the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation which virulently opposes sharia tribunals and councils.  The government has therefore shown that it will not defend the rights and protections of Muslim women, but instead defends the “rights” of the Islamist fanatics who seek to dominate them.