In the light of recent court decisions on marriage and divorce, today we have written to the Ministry of Justice, calling for an urgent review into Sharia and civil marriage and divorce laws and to guarantee access to justice for all.
We welcome the recent High Court decision in Akhter v Khan  EWFC 54 in the UK, to declare that a Muslim marriage contract (nikkah) was ‘void’, rather than a ‘non-marriage’. Shabaz Khan had refused to divorce Nasreen Akhter on the grounds that they did not have a valid marriage registered under English law. This had the effect of keeping Nasreen Akhter in marital captivity and denying her legal rights under English family law.
The outcome means that Nasreen Akthar is entitled to seek a decree of nullity, and hopefully, to obtain financial relief against Shabaz Khan. Even though the decision turned on the specific facts of the case, it is nevertheless significant for women trapped in unregistered marriages and should be examined for its relevance to marital captivity, forced and child marriage.
The judgment does not recognise ‘Sharia’ laws as some in the media have misleadingly stated. It deals with the knotty problem of women who believe that they are married but find that they have an unrecognised religious marriage only. This case shows that they can turn to the formal legal system. In fact, the judgement deals a blow to those who justify the sharia ‘courts’ as the only recourse for women who have not registered their marriages.
Our research shows that the power and control of religious fundamentalist networks over Muslims has grown enormously over the last thirty years. This has led to a widespread belief that a civil marriage is not necessary, that women must have a divorce certificate issued by a Sharia ‘court’ in an apparent judicial procedure; and that they must get this ‘certificate’ even if they already have a civil divorce.
While the judgement is a step in the right direction, the government urgently needs to examine its own complicity in keeping religious fundamentalists in business. Sharia ‘courts’, have been actively tolerated in Britain by being given charitable status and treated as partners by the police and local councils. While the government rejected the recommendation of the sharia review headed by Mona Siddiqui for regulation of the sharia councils; it has quietly ensured the continuing power of religious courts.
The application form for a divorce (Form D8) actively encourages women to turn to religious bodies. It states ‘If you entered into a religious marriage as well as a civil marriage, these divorce proceedings may not dissolve the religious part of your marriage. It is important that you contact the relevant religious authority and seek further guidance if you are unsure.’
If the government is serious about gender equality and ending violence against women, why is it undermining the validity of a civil divorce under English law? Why is it pushing women towards religious courts? For decades, the civil divorce has been the valid certificate demanded by courts abroad, regardless of whether there is also a religious marriage such as a Sikh, Hindu or Muslim ceremony. This guidance undermines women’s rights and the recognition of divorces awarded by British courts.
We call on the government to immediately withdraw this guidance from the divorce application form; to address the lack of access to justice brought about by cuts to legal aid; to overhaul outdated marriage and divorce laws and to take active measures to end religious courts and their control over women’s lives.
Gita Sahgal, Director, Centre for Secular Space
Pragna Patel, Director, Southall Black Sisters
Yasmin Rehman, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All
Afsana Lachaux, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Ahlam Akram, Founder, Basira
Amina Lone, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Diana Nammi, Executive Director, Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation
Gina Khan, Spokesperson, One Law for All
Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation
Rahila Gupta, Writer
Rumana Hashem, Spokesperson, Community Women Against Abuse
Sadia Hamed, Spokesperson, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Critical Sisters Director
Stephen Evans, Chief Executive Officer, National Secular Society