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Last Updated: Saturday, 21 February, 2004, 02:42 GMT
'It's not about the money'
By Cindi John
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Shabana Delawala and her bridegroom celebrated their wedding in August 2001 with a lavish week-long reception for 500 guests.
Shabana Delawala
Shabana Delawala has set up a campaign group to help others

But when the marriage broke down less than a year later Ms Delawala had to face up to the fact that, in the eyes of British law, she had never been married.

For the couple had failed to follow up their Islamic wedding with the civil ceremony needed for the marriage to be recognised under British law.

It's one of the problems surrounding Islamic weddings currently being tackled by some of the UK's Muslim religious leaders.

But Shabana Delawala wishes she had faced up to the issue before her husband divorced her by uttering 'I divorce you' three times as required by Islamic law.

"The reason we didn't have a civil ceremony was because he would say to me 'let's see how it goes, who knows what's going to happen in the future'.

"I guess when you get married nobody has the word 'divorce' in their mind so I let it go, I didn't think that much of it," she says.

Ms Delawala always knew her marriage was not valid under English law, but relied on her status as a "common-law wife", only finding out later that such a term had no meaning in law.

'Clean break'

As no civil ceremony had taken place, Ms Delawala discovered that under British law she had no rights on her former husband's assets.

She was entitled only to what had been agreed in her "haq mehr" - the financial settlement in her marriage contract.

Family lawyer Aina Khan says she's dealing with an ever-increasing number of cases like that of Ms Delewala.

But she says it's not Islamic marriages themselves which are unfair to women who later divorce.

Somebody needs to stand up and teach a man a lesson basically
Shabana Delewala

"Under Islamic marriage they're in a very fortunate position because if they have done as the religion recommends they would have had a very good financial settlement in their marriage contract which they would be entitled to get immediately.

"They wouldn't need to go to court, to mediate or negotiate anything. It would be a nice clean break without any animosity."

But she says many Asian women are steeped in a culture which makes them unwilling to insist on their rights to a fair settlement, and agree to a traditional amount such as 50 or 101.

That was the case with Shabana Delawala, who ended up with only the 101 specified in her marriage contract.


Ms Delawala, 23, says her upset was compounded by the fact that so little assistance was available to her.

"I contacted so many of these organisations that say that they can offer help and advice, you know, women's organisations. None of them could help at all.

"I have started a campaign group called 'Knowledge and Justice' to help more women. And I have had contact with so many women who have been through a similar situation."

She found so few solicitors had the knowledge needed to take on her case that she has taken time off from her teaching job to research the issue, and will represent herself in court next month in her fight for a share of her former husband's assets.

What we want to do is to avoid this kind of situation ending up in the courts
Aina Khan

But she insists her actions are not motivated by material considerations.

"It's not about the money at all, it's because so many women go through this and somebody needs to stand up and teach a man a lesson basically - that they can't carry on this way, that changes need to be made."

Ms Khan also believes women need to be more assertive to prevent problems occurring.

"What we want to do is to avoid this kind of situation ending up in the courts, it's much nicer for the community if we can prevent these issues coming to a head.

"There shouldn't be this feeling that you have to be unduly modest just because you're asking for rights which have been given to you by your faith."

'Imams not to blame'

Others also think changes are over-due.

At a conference organised by the self-styled Muslim Parliament of Britain on Saturday, imams will be urged to register their mosques as venues for civil weddings so that Islamic ceremonies carried out there can be valid under UK law.

But Shabana Delawala doesn't think that will solve the problem.

"Even if they're registered what good will that do? It's down to the actual couple to agree on having it registered. I mean my mosque could have registered my marriage but my husband didn't want it.

"I feel the Muslim Parliament should stop blaming the imams because it's not the imams' fault at all, it's down to lack of knowledge among the community itself and women feeling repressed."

Shabana Delawala can be contacted at:


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