How English matrimonial law fails Muslim and Jewish women

How English matrimonial law fails Muslim and Jewish women

On the afternoon of Sunday 26 November, the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester held its first “Loose Lawyers” panel event since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. They were hosted by Salford Civic Centre in Swinton.

The format is very simple. Two Muslim and two Jewish lawyers give their responses to a single question, before taking comments and questions from the floor. This year’s question was “Does English matrimonial law betray Muslim and Jewish women?” 

The Forum’s Muslim Co-Chair Mohammed Amin opened the proceedings by introducing the Ceremonial Mayor of Salford, Cllr Gina Reynolds, who welcomed the participants to Salford Civic Centre. She recounted the pleasure she had attending previous Forum events. 

Then the panel was chaired by the Forum’s Jewish Co-Chair, Cllr Heather Fletcher, who is herself a solicitor, and comprised:

·         Erimnaz Mushtaq, Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers

·         Jeremy Dable, Barrister, Normanton Chambers

·         Adil Navaid, Barrister, St John’s Buildings

·         Alexandra Goldrein, Solicitor, Slater Heelis

While law can be very complicated, the lawyers explained how in their view the law lets down Muslim and Jewish women.

In the case of Muslim women, the main problems arise from the fact that very few mosques as registered as places for the conduct of marriage ceremonies, and do not have someone who is authorised by the government to register a marriage. Accordingly, the Muslim religious marriage ceremony, called a “Nikah,” is not recognised as a marriage under English law if it is performed in the UK. (A nikah performed overseas will be recognised by English law, if it constituted a valid marriage in the overseas country, which will be the case in Muslim majority countries.) 

This means that if the marriage breaks down, the women typically finds herself with no legal claim against the husband for maintenance for herself, although children can be claimed for while minors. Similarly any property claim is limited to property that she can prove she contributed to from her own resources. 

With the Jewish community, synagogues that perform marriages are typically registered for that purpose, so Jewish marriages are normally valid marriages under English law. However, while under English law a woman can divorce her husband, she cannot do so under Jewish religious law. Under religious law, her marriage ends only if the husband gives her a divorce, known as a “Get,” or if it can be proven that her husband has died. 

Otherwise even if divorced under English law the Jewish woman is still married under Jewish religious law, and cannot remarry. Such women are known as “Chained women.” 

Furthermore, Jewish law does not allow a husband to be coerced into giving a “Get”, so Jewish Rabbinic courts cannot order him to grant the divorce. 

There was a lively question and answer session followed by a vote of thanks given by the Forum’s Co-Founder, Afzal Khan CBE, MP for Manchester Gorton. 

After the formal proceedings the participants shared tea, coffee and kosher cakes, since the Forum aims to get Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths to get to know each other better. About 30 people attended, with strong turnout from Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths and none.

Guy Otten, Humanist, said “Today’s Forum Loose Lawyers event focused on the way Muslim and Jewish women are negatively impacted by the UK’s unreformed marriage laws. The same problems also affect other groups such as Humanists, whose weddings are also not automatically recognised.”

Alaa Dahhan, a journalism student at Manchester Metropolitan University, said “It helps me personally understand the importance of understanding my rights as a Muslim woman. I was anxious and stressed before joining the event as I’ve never been to this kind of event, but I felt welcomed from the first second and everyone was so nice.”

Anne Isaac, Muslim, said “A very informative and thoughtful debate.  From a Muslim perspective, I think it reinforces the need for imams to keep putting the English law forward and maybe to encourage both the nikah and the civil marriage on the same day, or having a date for the civil service when the nikah takes place.  This way Muslims are protected if they are having difficulties at some point in their marriage.”

June Rosen, Jewish, said “The Muslim and Jewish panel members were interesting and informative, the questions lively and thoughtful, followed by delicious cakes enjoyed by everyone – a most successful event.”

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