Statement by Pragna Patel and Janaya Walker of Southall Black Sisters and Gita Sahgal and Maryam Namazie of the One Law for All head of the 12/13 November intervention in a case (Akhter v Khan) in United Kingdom and call for protest outside the Court of Appeal on those days at 9.30 am:
As part of the One Law for All campaign, we will be holding a protest outside the Court of Appeal to let the government and the public know that minority women will not tolerate being trapped in marital captivity and treated as subjects of their so called religious communities rather than as citizens with equal rights.
On 31 July 2018, Mr Justice Williams, a family court judge decided Ms Nasreen Akhter was entitled to a decree of nullity of marriage, following the break-up of her 18 year old marriage. She had had a nikkah ceremony resulting in a Muslim marriage contract between herself and her husband, Mr Mohammed Khan. The couple were widely recognised as married in Britain and the UAE (where they lived from 2005 to 2011) for tax and other purposes. Although Ms Akhter wanted a civil marriage and believed one would take place, it never happened because Ms Akhter’s husband refused to have a civil marriage. The marriage ended following her husband’s suggestion that he take another wife. When the marriage broke down, he claimed that they had never been married and that he owed his wife nothing because their relationship constituted a ‘non-marriage’.
In court, the judge determined that ‘save for the issue of legal validity, this was a marriage and a long one at that’. He concluded that in the interests of human rights and justice, the marriage should be recognised as ‘void’ and granted a decree of nullity which allows Ms Akhter to claim the financial remedies that allow the family court to achieve a fair distribution of their family finances .
Because of the importance of the issue, the Attorney-General was made a party to the proceedings. The Attorney-General has appealed against this decision, arguing that the judge was wrong to recognise the marriage as ‘void’.
Our legal intervention
Ms Akhter and her husband are no longer taking an active part in the appeal but we are intervening to support the decision of Mr Justice Williams.
We regard Mr Justice William’s judgment to be just and humane. It will assist many women who believe that they are validly married to access justice through the family courts. If the appeal succeeds, the law will continue to trap minority women, particularly Muslims, in a legal limbo when they are coerced or deceived into having only a religious marriage contract rather than a valid civil marriage which is recognised in law. It will encourage women to access sharia and other religious ‘courts’ to resolve marital issues.
It is extraordinary that the government is pushing for this discriminatory conclusion since it will entrench even more the power of sharia ‘courts’ to arbitrate over family matters in accordance with fundamentalist and ultra-conservative norms.
Pragna Patel of SBS says:
“If this appeal is upheld, it will force Muslim and other women to turn to Sharia ‘courts’ that already cause significant harm to women and children. If this appeal succeeds then the government will succeed in outsourcing justice to unaccountable and fundamentalist inspired community based systems of arbitration. This amounts to an endorsement of parallel legal systems and an abrogation of its own legal obligations to uphold principles of the rule of law. This is not about recognising religious marriages; it is about the state guaranteeing equality to all before the law.”
Maryam Namazie of One Law for All says:
“Mr Justice Williams’ decision to consider a Sharia marriage a void marriage is an important one for women’s rights. It doesn’t recognise the Sharia marriage but by deeming it annulled, opens the way for Muslim women to secure financial remedies if they so choose where none would otherwise be available. Unsurprisingly, the Government has appealed this crucial decision. The Government is always perfectly happy to relegate minority women to kangaroo courts and faith-based parallel legal systems in order to appease fundamentalists and manage minority communities at the expense of women’s rights. If the appeal is upheld, it will further discrimination against minority women.”
Gita Sahgal of One Law for All says:
“The One Law for All campaign’s research has shown that the collapse of civil marriages in Muslim communities has been used to spread the influence of sharia ‘courts’. Women are trapped in a legal limbo unable to divorce, and unable to remarry. We believe all marriages must be registered; but we support this judgement which voids the Muslim marriage contract. The government, which has failed to act against sharia councils, is now threatening to send women back to them, by closing off this remedy.”
Southall Black Sisters is one of the UK’s leading women’s organisations for black and minority ethnic (BME) women. Established in 1979 we went on to set up an advice, resource, campaigning and advocacy centre with a particular focus on South Asian women. Whilst based in West London, we have a national reach. Our work by its very nature addresses issues of multiple or intersectional discrimination, involving the simultaneous experience of race, sex and other forms of discrimination.
The bulk of our work is directed at assisting women and children – the overwhelming victims of domestic and other forms of gender-related violence – obtain effective protection and assert their fundamental human rights. For the last decade or so we have challenged the rise of religious fundamentalism and its impact on women’s rights, education and the law.
The One Law for All Campaign was launched on 10 December 2008, International Human Rights Day, to call on the UK Government to recognise that Sharia and religious courts are arbitrary and discriminatory against women and children in particular and that citizenship and human rights are non-negotiable. The Campaign aims to end Sharia and all religious courts on the basis that they work against, and not for, equality and human rights.
Significant case on women’s rights following break up of marriage at the Court of Appeal
Extensive research conducted by One Law for All, including dozens of interviews with women who have experienced the horrors of ‘sharia law’ in Britain, shows how women are traumatised and humiliated in a system weighted against them. The result is that polygamous marriages are increasing and men are walking away from any responsibility at the end of a marriage. The government has failed to act against sharia ‘courts’ and has ended legal aid for family matters. Now it seeks to deprive minority women of their rights in the civil justice system.
We argue that if the appeal is allowed, the law will be discriminatory. Christian women in a similar situation would be able to have their marriages declared ‘void’, and thus have access to financial remedies from the courts, but women who have married in another religious system, may not. This is not about recognising religious marriages; it is about the state guaranteeing equality to all before the law.
We say Equality Not Discrimination.