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The BBC's Zubeida Malik
"There may be hundreds practising polygamy in the UK"
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Sunday, 18 June, 2000, 09:04 GMT 10:04 UK
Polygamy law set for challenge

Multiple marriages are not recognised under British law
The BBC's Zubeida Malik reports

Muslims in Britain are to challenge UK law which forbids husbands from having more than one wife.

They say they will refer Britain's ban on polygamous marriage to the European Court of Human Rights this autumn.

Under Islamic law a man is allowed to have up to four wives, but the Muslim Parliament of Britain says that many families are being forced to live outside the law because their polygamous marriages are not recognised here.

There are no official figures on the number of people practising polygamy in Britain, but it's estimated that there may be hundreds.

One British Muslim wife suffering as a result of polygamy is Sameera, whose 55-year-old husband took up a second wife after 30 years of marriage.

Under Islamic law a man may have up to four wives
He married a 26-year-old cousin in January, whilst on holiday in Pakistan, without Sameera's knowledge or consent.

Told by her in-laws she says she was devastated, but feels she has no choice but to accept the situation.

"I just fainted when I first heard," says Sameera. "The fact that he's married such a young girl, a girl old enough to be his daughter. I cried and cried and felt like my mind was exploding. It felt like the ground had just fallen from under me, why did he do it? It shouldn't happen."

Although Islam allows a man to marry up to four wives, he can only do so if his first wife is infertile, or if he marries women who are considered social outcasts. It is not, as many believe, meant to be for the sexual gratification of men.

Noshaba Hussein from the Muslim Parliament says she knows of many happy polygamous marriages in Britain.

This practice is taking place in Britain and there are couples who are quite happy and satisfied with their relationship

Noshaba Hussein from the Muslim Parliament
"I am aware that this practice is taking place in Britain and there are couples who are quite happy and satisfied with their relationship and they would like it to carry on and be protected by law."

The police say there is little they can do. Colin Cramphorn from the Association of Chief Police Officers says he finds cases like Sameera's disturbing, but he believes that politicians need to clarify the law.

"Clearly those communities that have a tradition which allows polygamous marriage have a point of view and they are keen to have that point of view taken into account and recognised as part of a multi-cultural society," says Mr Cramphorn.

"But of course if the law is equivocal, as it currently is, then that prevents all of us achieving the kind of clarity that would no doubt be helpful in the longer term."

Human rights challenge

Come October, when the Human Rights Act comes into force, British law on such matters will be open to challenges, under article eight of the act which says everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life.

Noshaba Huseein says that if the government refuses to accept the legality of polygamous marriages then the Muslim parliament will take it to the European court of human rights.

"There will be a need to do something much more, in the way of a campaign, if there is a denial of rights and certainly people will be taking actions to the European court to ensure that we have the rights of freedom of religion."

The issue of polygamy encapsulates the debate over whether minorities have the right to follow their own customs or conform to established Judaeo Christian values. The bishop of Rochester, Dr Nazir Ali, believes the government should not succumb to such pressures.

"I don't think that polygamy should be enshrined in law because it will affect the mutual love and companionship that a marriage needs and it will also affect the stability of the family," says Dr Ali.

But Noshaba Hussein warns that if the government continues to overlook their demands they could end up losing ethnic minority votes.

"Muslims are very strong supporters of the Labour government," she says.

"So far I think we've been getting a relatively rough deal and maybe it will be reflected in the polls."

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See also:

29 Feb 00 | Africa
Polygamist marries 100 times
07 Dec 99 | Asia-Pacific
Turkmenistan to consider legal polygamy
21 Jul 99 | Europe
Russia says no to polygamy
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