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Government must overcome fear of being labelled ‘Islamophobic’ and address Muslim women’s rights – by making mandatory the registration of all religious marriages

A significant number of Muslim women in the United Kingdom are in unregistered religious-only marriages, many of whom will be unaware that they lack legal protections and access to marital rights.

In this report, Emma Webb examines how the asymmetric nature of those sometimes polygamous marriages and Islamic divorce – which allows a man to instantaneously divorce his wife but makes it much harder for the wife to initiate divorce – leaves women in a precarious situation.

Although such religious ‘divorces’ have no legal status in UK civil or family law, they can face the consequences of sudden divorce and being left without financial assets or property, destitute and without support in their own communities.

As already noted by the 2018 Independent Review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales, “an impact of changing the marriage laws to ensure registration of Muslim marriages would be to prohibit informal polygamy through multiple Islamic marriages”.

“In return for a religious divorce, women may face financial exploitation and accept unlawful informal custody arrangements. The asymmetric nature of Islamic divorce and the paucity of civilly registered marriage create reliance on sharia councils that have been known to perpetuate the abuse and discrimination already suffered by some women.”

“This includes safeguarding concerns, with some sharia councils reportedly having a dismissive attitude towards domestic, sexual, emotional and child abuse, as well as ignoring civil court injunctions.”

“Tackling unregistered marriages in the UK will also have the benefit of making it harder to hide child and forced marriages.”

On the current lack of intervention, interviewees suggest “Reluctance may be the result of a political calculation based on perceptions about religious sensitivity – in other words, fear of being called Islamophobic for intervening on an issue relating to Muslim women’s rights within their community – a situation which is obviously unacceptable and unsustainable.”

“Over the past decade, successive governments have failed to respond to calls for legislative reform.”

“Alongside innovative proposals from academics and activists internationally, some government inquiries and reviews have repeatedly recommended action, including the Casey Review into opportunity and integration (2016), the independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales (2018), the Integrated Communities Strategy green paper (2018), as well as the Council of Europe Resolution 2253 (2019) and our obligations under international law, namely, The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).”

On the basis of testimonies, case studies, interviews and a review of legislative proposals, the report makes several recommendations, including:

  1. Amending current legislation to make mandatory the registration of all religious marriages in the England and Wales, in line with the proposals of the Marriage Act 1949 (Amendment) Bill
  • “…there was general consensus among interviewees that this is an important first step and would significantly improve Muslim women’s access to marital rights and benefits.”
  • “The impact of this is also likely to reduce the prevalence of unregistered polygamous unions, which have a negative impact on women’s rights and mental health…”
  • “Financial incentives (through Universal Credit) to enter unregistered polygamous relationships should also be removed, thereby lessening the burden on the taxpayer.”
  1. Extending the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 to cover Islamic divorces, as was previously achieved for the Jewish community
  • “This Act allows a judge to withhold the civil dissolution of a marriage until a Jewish religious divorce is granted.
  • “It therefore prevents the phenomena of the ‘chained woman’, in which a woman is civilly divorced but unable to remarry because the refusal or unreasonable delay of religious divorce being granted.”
  1. Launch of a nationwide education campaign to raise awareness of marital rights and consequences of unregistered religious-only marriages.
  • “Many women with unregistered marriages are unaware that they are not protected by the law, and do not understand the legal status of their religious-only union.”
  • “…it is important to institute a nationwide campaign, as has been done with Female Genital Mutilation, encouraging marriage registration and explaining the consequences of failing to do so.”
  1. Further research into the broader socio-cultural context of which unregistered marriage is a part, with the aim of ‘juridifying’ an approach to social problems, where appropriate in a free society with the intention to protect individual rights and promote integration


“I strongly commend this timely report. The women who have shared their stories have risked much. I hope that their courage will not be in vain – and that Government legislation will at last be introduced with great urgency, as so many Muslim women in this country are suffering in ways that would make our Suffragettes turn in their graves.” – Baroness Cox of Queensbury


“This report is an important contribution to a sensitive and vexed subject. Respect for religious and cultural traditions sometimes brings conflict with the law of the land. The report faces these issues head-on, and makes an important contribution to a difficult debate.” – Lord Carlile of Berriew CBE QC

Fallen through the cracks

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