Yesterday, the High Court ruled that a Muslim husband and wife married under Islamic ceremony (Nikah) could divorce under UK laws. This has a huge impact on Muslims living in the UK, particularly women. For many years, campaigners such as myself and many others, have fought to have our Nikah only marriages recognised by the law as valid marriages. However, previously, the only status of such a union was considered ‘co-habitation’ and therefore the ‘wife’ had no rights to make any claims against the ‘husband’s’ assets or claim financial support. All this has now changed because of the yesterday’s ruling.
The court recognised that the relationship between Nasreen Akhtar and Mohammed Shabaz Khan was that of a married couple- although Mr Khan had claimed it wasn’t, primarily to protect his financial assets accumulated during the marriage while also negating the chance of being forced to pay ongoing financial support by the courts. Under the ruling, Mr Khan will now have to disclose the full extent of his assets, as well as pay his former wife ongoing payments in line with the legal rulings on marriages recognised in U.K. civil laws.
Prominent women’s rights campaigners have applauded the judge’s decision. Gina Khan, a campaigner for ‘One Law for All, wrote ‘We need to work towards ending these sharia courts. ‘They (mullahs and imams) allowed the practice of polygamy to be normalised & then charged extortionate amounts for a piece of paper that is not legally recognised and making money out of the plight of Muslim women seeking divorce from controlling men.
One Civil marriage, one nikah- this needs to be law in line with all other religions in the UK.’
Nina, who herself was left penniless after her husband married and divorced her under Islamic law, stated: ‘For too long, men who have wanted to protect their assets have coerced women into Nikah only marriages. It has also been a major loophole for legitimised polygamy in the U.K. In all cases, women & children lose out. I’m over the moon at the outcome of this case, & hope Parliament will now initiate change in the law which must be victim led.’
The actual impact of yesterday’s ruling going forward is yet to be assessed- and perhaps it has thrown up more questions than answers: will UK courts recognise Islamic nikahs during divorce proceedings only and if so, what about the rights of the wife during the course of the marriage? Will this ruling apply retrospectively to the many hundreds of thousands of Muslim couples who have married under sharia law only?
Another case that is currently being considered by the Court of Appeal is Lachaux v Lachaux- and the judgment could again be a game changer for Muslim women married under sharia laws. In the judgement, the judge ruled that the divorce obtained under Dubai’s sharia based laws (where the couple were living at the time of the divorce) was valid and in accordance with internationally recognised good practice despite the fact that Mrs Lachaux had no idea she was being divorced and that proceedings had nearly concluded by the time she found out.
So do these recent landmark rulings in UK’s family court proceedings mean that UK judges are becoming more favourable to recognising sharia rulings? Time will tell.
In the meantime, we are yet to know if an appeal will be lodged in this case, and on what grounds. Until then, we should celebrate the fact that we, as Muslim women, have achieved a very significant milestone towards gender equality in divorce proceedings.