While attending a conference about multiculturalism a week ago, I got talking to an Islamic scholar, a woman finishing her PhD about Muslim marriage in the UK. I was keen to understand more about why Muslim women, in particular, agree to marriages that are not marriages according to British law but counted as marriages by one of a small number of Sharia councils now in the UK.
Two answers to this question were offered. First, as is also the case with some conservative Christians, a ban on sex before marriage is taken seriously within many Muslim communities in Britain. This incentive to get ‘married’ young is furthered when it is explained to a young couple that an Islamic marriage is not a marriage under British law, it involves no legal ties but it does mean that the community will accept you both. What is perhaps not made so clear is that, for the woman, getting out of such a marriage, may not be as straightforward as getting married. She may well need the agreement of a male relative who will support her claim to a divorce, whereas the man may be able to use the ‘triple talaq’ and divorce without anyone else’s permission. The second answer given was that in a young couple the woman may come under quite a lot of pressure to marry from the man, his family and her own family, to marry. If the woman says that she wants the protections of British law, it may be explained that ‘all that can wait’. Once married, however, the man may often put off or refuse to be married under British law.
Just a glimpse at this situation gives me every reason to think that ‘marriages’ arranged through Sharia councils should have to be marriages under British law so as to give equal protections to both parties. It would appear that women are not made fully aware, if they are made at all aware in many cases, of their disadvantage in the marriage arrangements. What alarmed me in my conversation with the PhD student is that she did not agree that Islamic marriages should be tied to British law. She was articulate and confident but I couldn’t get from her a clear answer as to why she thought this way.
I was struck by something that Professor Grace Davie, said in a lecture at the same conference, so struck that I have tried to repeat it more or less word for word. What follows is taken from my notes of her lecture:
‘For some women the conservative religious role is positive. This evaluation should not be dismissed by feminist secularists.’
It seems to me that before we ‘other’ feminist secularists or Muslim women who would seem to take the position that Davie describes, we first need to understand in what ways a conservative religious role may be viewed as positive by some Muslim women and for what reasons.
For now, it seems clear that Muslim marriages should have to be tied to UK marriage law in order to protect equal rights before the law. Meanwhile, the crucial search for understanding must be on-going, because the best solutions will not be imposed, but will be found through dialogue in which everyone is both questioned and also respected.