British Muslims’ relationship crisis

wFauzia Ahmad

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.

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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.[1]

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’,[2] or more generally as the ‘myth of the happy celibate’.[3] 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.

The signing of a Muslim marriage contract, or nikah


“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.[4]

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.[5] 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[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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[9] and working positively within Islamic frameworks. In light of this, comments likening the referral to Sharia councils as ‘consensual as rape’[10] 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.[11] 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’,[12] 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:

[1] 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).

[2] Syma Mohammed, ‘Why British Muslim women struggle to find a marriage partner’, The Guardian, 18 January 2012, [accessed 11/12/13]

[3] 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

[4] Sue Reid, ‘The truth about polygamy: A special investigation into how Muslim men can exploit the benefits system’, The Daily Mail, 24 September 2011, [accessed 11/12/13]

[5] Maleiha Malik, ‘Accommodating minority legal orders’, Public Spirit, 22 October 2013, [accessed 14/12/13]; ‘Minority Legal Orders in the UK: Minorities, Pluralism and the Law’, British Academy Policy Centre, 2012.

[6] Karen McVeigh and Amelia Hill, ‘Bill limiting sharia law is motivated by ‘concern for Muslim women’’, The Guardian, 8 June 2011, [accessed 14/12/13]

[7] 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).

[8] Lisa Pilgram, ‘British-Muslim family law and citizenship’, 8 November 2012, [accessed 15/12/13]

[9] Fauzia Ahmad, ‘Gendering the Muslim Question’, in Runnymede Perspectives: The New Muslims, Ed Claire Alexander, Victoria Redclift and Ajmal Hussain, (The Runnymede Trust, 2013).

[10] House of Lords, Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, Second Reading, 19 October 2012, Column 1687.

[11] 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.

[12] Uddin v Choudhry [2009] 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.

10 Responses to “British Muslims’ relationship crisis”

  1. Iftikhar Ahmad

    The tragedy of forced marriage and honour killing could have been avoided if the poor girls were educated in a single sex state funded Muslim schools by female Muslim teachers. Educational attainment rises quite significantly if boys and girls are educated separately. The tragedies are an eye opener for all those Muslim parents who send their children to state schools where they are exposed to non-Muslim teachers who have no respect for Islamic faith and Muslim community and do not understand the needs and demands of the Muslim children. Muslim schools are crucial for Muslim children because western education makes a man/woman stupid. The hypocrisy of the Western society is clearly seen whereas an Australian Judge failed to jail nine males who admitted gang-raping a 10-year old aborigine girl in 2005, saying the victim probably agreed to have sex with them and a UNICEF Photo of the year shows, a bridegroom, 40, with his 11-year old bride in Afghanistan. In my opinion, a UNICEF photo of the year must show a nine year British girl having a baby and another photo showing a gang of teenage girls with anti-social behaviour and vomiting out side a pub, thanks to binge drinking. Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. Muslim schools are the solutions and not a problem. They help to strengthen community cohesion, not undermine it. Muslim schools stand as shining beacons of light, serving as one of the most crucial factors which protect Muslim children from the onslaught of Eurocentricism, homosexuality, racism and secular values and traditions. They need to be well versed in Standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time they need to be well versed in Arabic, Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with their cultural roots and enjoy the beauty of their literature and poetry. Muslim schools are not only faith schools but also bilingual schools. Infact, bilingualism is an asset and not a problem as perceived by the British education system. There is a positive co-relation between language and culture. English language is associated with western culture.

    The silent majority of Muslim parents would like to send their children to Muslim schools but there are not enough schools to go by. The only alternative left is either British Government should introduce voucher system for parents to choose the school of their choice or designate all those state schools as Muslim community schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. There are hundreds of state schools where Muslims are in majority. Such schools may be handed over to Muslim educational Trusts or charities for their management. They are in a better position to educate Muslim children in accordance with their needs and demands. This demand is in accordance with the law of the land because there are state schools already managed by private companies. Muslim community is not asking for a favour. It is their legal right.
    london school of Islamics Trust

    • SJ

      Iftikhar Ahmad, you seem to have a very narrow view of young people in the UK. They are not all binge-drinking idiots. I can assure you of that.

      I believe that you should educate a pupil to seek knowledge from many sources and equipe them with many methods to intellectuactly come to their own conclusions. Since teachers will not always be nearby to guide the way.

      To believe that a Muslim Educational Trust or charity would be better equiped to teach a child who is living in the UK is baffling to me. If they attend school here, I’m assuming they intend to live for some portion of their adult lives in the UK. Muslim studies should be an additional education. After all, school isn’t all about grades. It’s about understanding how to interact socially and while you don’t think very highly of the society in the UK, you should perhaps trust that Muslim children are sensible enough to not behave as idiots because others do.

      And even if you disagree with everything I’ve said and think you are right about the youth of the UK being binge-drinking idiots, surely shielding Muslim children from this is only going to cause issues later in life when these two groups meet in the real world?

      • WithAllDueRespect

        Iftikhar, I am shocked by your thinking …the Koran teaches us that we are free to move on our God-given earth if we feel the country we inhabit, inhibits us …why do you CHOOSE to live here and why should this country forgo its system to accommodate us (I wouldn’t expect you to re-structure your home to accommodate me, even if I were a guest bearing gifts:) …when you cannot say Alhumdilillah for the many blessings this country has to offer.
        I have put aside many comforts to put my children in single-sex private schools (not Muslim schools because my kids are being prepared for this part of the world). I have never collected child benefit for them or demanded free government schools to suite my child’s specific needs.
        I myself walked an hour each way for Urdu & Koranic lessons after school so a specific area of interest for our family could be fulfilled.
        I am also aware that throughout the generations there are many binge-drinking Pakistanis in the Islamic country & sadly that country is dealing with far more serious problems …like no free education in most part AND the offen tragic outcomes of Madrassas (see documentary Taliban Children)
        In my humble opinion you should look at finding joy within and for God sake if you have kids, teach them to create their own moral compass rather follow blindly the influence of their environment.
        Btw, the founding fathers of Pakistan were educated in the great British institution

  2. Sarah

    The author is to be congratulated for a deft summary of the situation and a valuable analysis of how and why we are where we are. I do hope policy makers and politicians take note and if they haven’t, their attention should be drawn to this incisive work.

  3. Iftikhar Ahmad

    According to a recent report, Muslim schools performed best overall, although they constitute only a fraction of the country’s 7000 schools. Muslim schools do well because of their Islamic ethos and a focus on traditional discipline and teaching methods. They teach children what is right and what is wrong, because young children need structured guidance.

    A man is a product of his culture, language and faith. State funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers would help bilingual Muslim children to develop their cultural, linguistic and spiritual identities before they are exposed to other cultures and faiths. A bilingual Muslim child must learn and be well versed in standard English to follow the National Curriculum and go for higher studies and research to serve humanity. At the same time he/she must learn and be well versed in Arabic to recite and understand the Holy Quran. On top of that he/she must learn Urdu and other community languages to keep in touch with his/her cultural heritage and enjoy the beauty of his/her literature and poetry. Without Muslim schools, Muslim children are not going to develop their Islamic identity, crucial for their mental, social, emotional and personality development. We have already lost four generations and fifth one is in the process of losing its cultural, linguistic and spiritual Identities.

    I have been campaigning for state funded Muslim schools for the last 45 years because British schooling is the home of institutional racism and British teachers are chicken racists. British teachers are not role models for Muslim children during their developmental periods.

    None of the British Muslims convicted following the riots in Bradford and Oldham in 2001 or any of those linked to the London bombings had been to Islamic schools. An American Think Tank studied the educational back ground of 300 Jihadists; none of them were educated in Pakistani Madrasas. They were all Western educated by non-Muslim teachers. Bilingual Muslim children need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models. A Cambridge University study found that single-sex classes could make a big difference for boys. They perform better in single-sex classes. The research is promising because male students in the study saw noticeable gains in the grades. The study confirms the Islamic notion that academic achievement is better in single-sex classes.

    I set up the first Muslim school in London in 1981 and now there are about 188 Muslim schools and only 18 are state funded. I would like to see each and every Muslim child in a state funded Muslim school with bilingual Muslim teachers as role model. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

    Western media and politicians have been trying their best to propagate against Muslim schools. Muslim schools are even called Osama bin Laden Academies by a Teaching Union. Only less than 5% of Muslim children attend Muslim schools while more than 95% are in state schools to be mis-educated and de-educated by non-Muslim monolingual teachers.

    The demand for state funded Muslim schools is in accordance with the law of the land. Muslim community is not asking for any favour. Muslim community pays all sorts of taxes and is less burden on social services.

    Church leaders say it is no longer “appropriate” for them to run Sacred Heart RC Primary School which has just six Christian pupils. The school in Blackburn, Lances, could be handed to the nearby Masjid-e-Tauheedul mosque.

    Harry Devonport of Blackburn with Darwin Council Children’s Services, said the decision to abandon the school was made by the Diocese of Salford. Diocese education director Geraldine Bradbury said: “We have never experienced a change to this extent before. We would not be serving the local community by insisting that we run the school. It brings things like having a Catholic head teacher and devoting 10% of the timetable to RE.”It would be wrong of us to insist on putting a school community through that.”

    There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be opted out as Muslim Academies. Bilingual Muslim children need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

  4. Stephen

    Iftikhar – there are so many logical gaps in your thinking, it is hard to know where to begin.

    – Could you point us towards this report that you mention?
    – What if a Muslim student, or their parents, does not wish to attend a Muslim school?
    – Can you point us towards the empirical evidence saying that all “British teachers are chicken racists”?

  5. Aysha

    People like you Iftekhar Ahmed are the reason why certain schools around the UK are being investigated.
    Muslim children in the UK need to grow up and learn about all aspects of life that includes what it means to be British. If they are educated in the cocoon system which it appears you are proposing, we will see many more social misfits and radicalised no hopers. Your thinking is better suited in a Muslim country and I suggest you take your ideas to such a country.

  6. graham

    Unless Muslim children mix with others, they will not be able to adjust when they come to the real world. They have to earn their living and work with non-muslim people.

  7. Haloge

    I am in total agreement with Aysha.

    Personally, I believe that that there should be no Religious Schools, and that all children should be taught together. Separation only exasperates differences with the usual resultant problems.

    If muslims wish to live in the UK may I suggest that they make some attempt to integrate with the indigenous culture, and if they seriously wish to live under obvious benefits of Sharia Law may I suggest that they move to a country where it is actually practised.


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