This article is part of a series on Muslim women in Britain.
Second and third generation British Muslims are currently experiencing a relationship crisis. Getting married and staying married is one of the biggest contemporary issues facing Muslim diasporas, yet it is an issue that many mosques, Muslim organisations, secular legal and welfare services are failing to offer adequate support for. There is an urgent need for informed and inclusive debate by Muslim support networks and policy-makers – debate that moves beyond stereotyped ‘victim/threat to democracy’ tropes that dominate discourses by media and politicians during discussions on the niqab, towards more sophisticated and evidence-led discussions.
British Muslim marriage practices in recent years have witnessed a process of rapid social change rendering existing notions of ‘arranged marriages’ as dated. Greater participation rates in higher education, especially among British Muslim women, and growing professionalisation has led to increased individualisation among second and third generation British Muslim men and women. The possession of a degree, for many Muslim women, represents not only an ‘insurance policy’ against precarious job markets, but is also viewed as a necessity in order to attract a similarly educated and professional partner, or to ensure that they are able to ‘stand on their own two feet’ should financial or marital difficulties arise.
However, research I have been conducting shows that many educated British Muslim women are experiencing difficulties in attracting suitable matrimonial partners for a variety of reasons. The resulting rise in the numbers of single, professional British Muslim women, and their increased ages, has become such a significant issue that it has been referred to in some British Muslim circles as ‘the Muslim spinster crisis’, or more generally as the ‘myth of the happy celibate’. Some Muslim matrimonial organisers, community activists and Muslim women’s groups have suggested that difficulties finding suitable Muslim male suitors are leading some women to consider becoming ‘second wives’.
“British Muslim marriage practices in recent years have witnessed a process of rapid social change rendering existing notions of ‘arranged marriages’ as dated.”
Another marked feature of social change in British Muslim relationships is that marital breakdown, especially in the early years of marriage, is on the increase, suggesting that many British Muslims regard divorce as less of a taboo than it used to be; there are even specific matrimonial events catering for the divorced and widowed. However, the fact that a sizeable proportion of British Muslims fail to register their marriages in civil registration ceremonies means that there is no way of gaining an accurate estimate for Muslim divorce rates.
How are we to contextualise these changes, particularly marital breakdown and polygamy within a policy context? While the issue of Muslim spinsterhood and marital discord is a matter for Muslim communities to come to terms with and address, the issues around non-registering of marriages, polygamy and the practical difficulties of obtaining a divorce through two separate systems can benefit from a far more informed and evidence-led discourse than is currently displayed by government and media.
Non-registering of marriages
Failure to register a marriage has typically been explained as either ignorance on the part of one or both of the marital parties, who assume that the religious ceremony is already recognised in British/English law, or an active rejection of British law in Muslim family life. Other scenarios have found women placed at a gross disadvantage when faced with a husband and in-laws who deliberately avoid registering the marriage in order to prevent wives from claiming her legal rights to financial support if the marriage should fail.
However, there is another trend emerging that suggests that campaigns aimed at encouraging more mosques to register themselves as legal sites for civil marriage ceremonies and highlighting the importance of marriage registration to Muslims are, surprisingly, not attracting interest from young British Muslim women, who instead, are choosing to actively reject the prospect of legalising a religious marriage. Why should this be the case? In many instances, women entering into a religious marriage with a man who is less economically stable, or from overseas (with the risk that once they gain British citizenship they will disappear or petition for divorce), are seeking to protect their own financial positions from any potential future claims for sharing of assets from their husbands. Other Muslim women are choosing not to register their marriages because they feel unsure about the relationship’s durability and are using the non-legal status of Islamic marriages and divorce in order to ‘test out’ the relationship before committing further, knowing that they can divorce without recourse to solicitors and extra expense.
“Many educated British Muslim women are experiencing difficulties finding suitable matrimonial matches. For some, the prospect of sharing a ‘quality’ husband is preferable to remaining single.”
These are certainly risky strategies that are emerging despite efforts made at state and grassroots levels to encourage more registering of marriages. While such decisions suggest that marital relationships conducted in such circumstances are already fragile, it is important to remember that the instigators here are educated and financially stable Muslim women.
Fears of Muslim men ‘importing’ additional wives from overseas and siphoning benefits have unsurprisingly attracted considerable – and sensationalised – media interest, raising concerns about the growth of polygamy among British Muslims (which supposedly goes hand-in-hand with a rejection of British social and moral norms and failure to integrate, as well as with rising extremism). Some have claimed that from 1,000 to as many as 20,000 Muslim marriages are polygamous – though the non-legal status of Islamic marriages makes it extremely difficult to verify such claims.
They also, unhelpfully, conjure up stereotyped images of misogynistic Muslim men and vulnerable, abused but exotic Muslim women. Moving away from the horror headlines, and at the risk of inviting controversy, I want to suggest that we try to look at the personal stories behind men and women’s reasons for choosing to enter into polygamous relationships. I have had my own pre-conceptions and prejudices in this area challenged by both men and women advocating or choosing polygamy as a valid marital option. As mentioned above, many educated British Muslim women are experiencing difficulties finding suitable matrimonial matches. For some women, the prospect of sharing a husband who is ‘quality’ is preferable to remaining single, especially if their single status is likely to cause embarrassment. While some women may come to accept that they may never marry, for others the need for intimacy and children is a strong one, and in these circumstances perhaps a polygamous and Islamically acceptable union provides some half-way solution. Other professional women choose polygamy because they want to marry but do not want the responsibility of a ‘full-time husband’, and feel that sharing a husband is less disruptive to their existing lifestyles.
“Vilifying practices that are Islamically acceptable will not lead to their cessation. Instead, we need to look at creative ways of supporting those who choose to enter into such arrangements.”
Hearing some men’s perspectives, there are undoubtedly elements of machismo associated with having more than one wife and there are plenty of examples of appalling attitudes and behaviour towards their wives. There are also those who are ultra-religious or conservative and choose polygamy for religious reasons. However, there are some men who have also been victims of forced marriage and feel trapped in unhappy marriages, sometimes with children, who are reluctant to divorce their wives – some of whom may still reside overseas, may be cousins, and are equally unhappy but also unwilling to divorce. Loneliness can be the trigger and men looking for a second wife who are experiencing these types of situations often do so with the permission of their first wife.
While we may still view polygamy as unacceptable within a British context, I feel that we have to accept that as British Muslims grow more confident in their identities, and as more Muslim women find securing a suitable matrimonial partner increasingly difficult, especially as their ages increase, that practices such as polygamy will increase. Vilifying and pathologising certain practices that are Islamically acceptable, will not lead to their cessation. Instead, we need to perhaps look at creative ways of supporting women (and men) who choose to enter into such arrangements.
Increasing divorce rates among British Muslims, and the short length of some marriages, is a cause for concern and further research. It is possible that government and activist-led campaigns against domestic violence and forced marriage may be contributing factors behind increased rates of divorce, but for women leaving such relationships, it is ironic that there is little thought given to the quality of the legal and welfare services they receive. Instead, critical emphasis has been reserved for the quality of the Islamic services they seek.
The presence of, and potential recognition or accommodation of Sharia within legal frameworks remains a sensitive issue despite the fact that aspects of Sharia – namely financial services and products – have been successfully incorporated into English law for several years now. As others writing for Public Spirit have highlighted, one of the most controversial aspects has been the existence and practice of Sharia ‘courts’ presiding over family law, specifically Islamic divorces and marriage mediation. In Minority Legal Orders in the UK: Minorities, Pluralism and the Law Maleiha Malik offers a detailed analysis of the ways minority legal orders, such as those pertaining to Islamic divorce, can be successfully accommodated within existing legal parameters without compromising the principles of secular liberal democracy.
Too often, though, media- and politician-led debates, are sensationalised, generalised and lack nuance. Framing the issues as concerns for protecting Muslim women’s human rights and principles of gender equality from abuse from Sharia councils presumes from the outset that Islam and the use of Sharia is inherently discriminatory and oppressive towards women. Such discourses fail to acknowledge that Sharia can be an empowering tool for Muslim women if they are lucky in their choice of Sharia council and that it is very often the subsequent legal processes and enforcement of Sharia council rulings that are discriminatory.
Research on Sharia councils across the UK has consistently demonstrated that Muslim women make up the vast majority of applicants to Sharia councils for Islamic divorces, often due to the refusal of intransigent husbands to grant them a religious divorce. Furthermore, women applicants are diverse, with many coming from highly educated professional backgrounds and are often self-referring, countering another presumption – that most women are pressurised into allowing Sharia councils to preside over their matrimonial and divorce matters.
“While some Sharia councils do need to reform their practice, focusing on discriminatory examples alone is unhelpful and actually acts to pathologise Muslim families and marginalise Muslim women.”
Researchers have previously highlighted the difficulties Muslim women faced from secularised institutions such as social and legal services and the judiciary, many of which were often unable to offer faith-sensitive services or acknowledge the centrality of faith for their Muslim clients. In 2003 the Legal Action Group (LAG) began introducing accredited courses on Islamic family law and the ways Islamic matrimonial rights could be secured in English law. A decade later, a quick Google search reveals a marked increase in the number of high street solicitors offering Islamic legal services that include the handling of Islamic divorces and the drawing up of Islamic marital contracts enforceable in civil courts, with some even issuing divorce certificates on behalf of male clients without the intervention of a Sharia council. Although lucrative, they are clearly responding to a growing client-based need. Similarly, the development of the Muslim Marriage Contract (2008) – a joint venture by The Muslim Parliament with several Muslim scholars, organisations and Muslim women’s groups and intended to safe-guard women’s rights within marriage, demonstrates a community-based initiative that acknowledges relationship instability among British Muslims.
Successive governments have failed to recognise the significance of the above issues, influenced instead, by media scare stories around the evils of allowing Sharia law in Britain. The Muslim voluntary sector and Muslim women’s organisations, already poorly resourced (and now more so as funds were re-directed towards preventing violent extremism), provide a much needed buffer supporting women through access to ‘female-friendly’ Sharia councils in order to obtain an Islamic divorce, or by providing faith-based counselling and working positively within Islamic frameworks. In light of this, comments likening the referral to Sharia councils as ‘consensual as rape’ by Baroness Donaghy during the second reading of the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill on 19 October 2012 (introduced by Baroness Cox), do Muslim women actively seeking to enforce their Islamic rights no favours.
While some Sharia councils do need to reform their practice and take on board women’s experiences using their services, and form ‘benchmarks’ for standardised, equitable good practice, I believe focusing on discriminatory and bad practice examples alone, as the debates during the readings for Baroness Cox’s draft Bill have tended to do, is unhelpful and actually acts to pathologise Muslim families and marginalise Muslim women. It also fails to consider the structural and practical barriers Muslim women, regardless of education levels, face when seeking to enforce, in the civil courts, rights to claims on their marital contracts that have been awarded by Sharia councils, especially if marriages have been short-lived and where any claims for financial relief in the English civil courts would be limited. Instead, discussions about Sharia councils and Muslim women need to be framed in terms of assisting Muslim women to enforce their Islamic rights through the civil courts. At present, the process of enforcing any Sharia-based claim in the civil courts is arduous, complicated and costly, even when marriages have been legally registered and acts as a deterrent to accessing justice for many Muslim women. However, the recognition by the Court of Appeal of the Islamic marital contract and divorce by a Sharia council in favour of the wife in the case of Uddin v Choudhry (2009), as ‘… a valid ceremony so far as the parties were agreed and it was valid for the purposes of giving legal effect to the agreement which had been made about gifts and dowry’, is encouraging particularly since the marriage in this instance was not registered. Such willingness on the part of judges to consider and accept minority legal orders as valid for the parties entering into them is a positive step forward.
Fauzia Ahmad is based at the Department of Politics and Social Policy, University College London and is an Hon Research Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, University of Bristol. Her research and publications focus on the experiences and identities of British Muslim women in higher education, employment and social welfare and is currently conducting research on British Muslim relationships. Her publications can be viewed on:
 Fauzia Ahmad, ‘Modern Traditions? British Muslim Women and Academic Achievement’, Gender and Education, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2001): 137-152; ‘Graduating towards marriage? – Attitudes towards marriage and relationships among university educated British Muslim women’, Culture and Religion, Vol. 13 (2012): 193-210; Fauzia Ahmad et al, South Asian Women and Employment in Britain: the Interaction of Gender and Ethnicity, (London: PSI, 2003).
 Syma Mohammed, ‘Why British Muslim women struggle to find a marriage partner’, The Guardian, 18 January 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/jan/18/british-muslim-women-marriage-struggle [accessed 11/12/13]
 Alia Imtoual and Shakira Hussein ‘Challenging the myth of the happy celibate: Muslim women negotiating contemporary relationships’, Contemporary Islam, Vol. 3, no. 1 (2009): 25-39
 Sue Reid, ‘The truth about polygamy: A special investigation into how Muslim men can exploit the benefits system’, The Daily Mail, 24 September 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2041244/Polygamy-Investigation-Muslim-men-exploit-UK-benefits-system.html#ixzz2poNCfkA9 [accessed 11/12/13]
 Maleiha Malik, ‘Accommodating minority legal orders’, Public Spirit, 22 October 2013, http://www.publicspirit.org.uk/accommodating-minority-legal-orders/ [accessed 14/12/13]; ‘Minority Legal Orders in the UK: Minorities, Pluralism and the Law’, British Academy Policy Centre, 2012.
 Karen McVeigh and Amelia Hill, ‘Bill limiting sharia law is motivated by ‘concern for Muslim women’’, The Guardian, 8 June 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/law/2011/jun/08/sharia-bill-lords-muslim-women?guni=Article:in%20body%20link [accessed 14/12/13]
 Nurin Shah-Kazemi, Untying the Knot: Muslim Women, Divorce and the Shariah, (London: The Nuffield Foundation, 2001); Samia Bano, S (2012), Muslim women and Shari’ah Councils, (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).
 Lisa Pilgram, ‘British-Muslim family law and citizenship’, 8 November 2012, http://www.opendemocracy.net/lisa-pilgram/british-muslim-family-law-and-citizenship [accessed 15/12/13]
 Fauzia Ahmad, ‘Gendering the Muslim Question’, in Runnymede Perspectives: The New Muslims, Ed Claire Alexander, Victoria Redclift and Ajmal Hussain, (The Runnymede Trust, 2013).
 House of Lords, Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, Second Reading, 19 October 2012, Column 1687.
 Fauzia Ahmad, ‘Untying the Knot (Salma’s story)’, Q News, December 2003, Issue 352, pp 10-11; ‘Muslim woman wins civil law recognition of Islamic rights’ (with S Sheriff), The Muslim News, December 2003.
 Uddin v Choudhry  EWCA Civ 1205, p.4, para 11.
The image of the nikah is included courtesy of Zainub Razvi. The image of the Bangladeshi wedding is included courtesy of Monjurul Hoque. Both images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.