Page last updated at 23:22 GMT, Thursday, 10 September 2009 00:22 UK

SA battle over Muslim women's rights

Muslims have lived in South Africa for hundreds of years - but Islamic marriages remain unrecognised in law, making divorce potentially disastrous for women. As the BBC's Mohammed Allie reports from Cape Town, that situation could be about to change.

Rashied Omar
For 300 years one of the major issues for Muslims has been that their marriages aren't recognised and their children are illegitimate
Rashied Omar

Nashita Davids was married for more than 12 years, but like many South African women she is now divorced.

Unlike most other women, however, this means she has been left in poverty.

"Financially we are messed up, I only actually want what is rightfully mine, what I've worked for, what I've sweated for," she says.

"Not just for me, but for my kids, that's all that I want."

She says she lived in a home to which she and her husband both contributed - but following her divorce she was left with nothing and was forced to move back to her parents' house.

South African couples who marry legally do so in community of property, which allows both parties an equal share of material possessions in the event of a divorce.

But women married under Muslim rites have endless problems.

'Psychological victory'

For the past 15 years South Africa's Muslims have been discussing the implementation of a so-called Muslim Personal Law - which would recognise Islamic marriages.

A Muslim marriage ceremony
Woman can be left penniless after a break-up

But the legislation has been delayed by a lack of consensus among Muslims.

Cape Town religious leader Rashied Omar believes the implementation of Muslim Personal Law, particularly the recognition of Muslim marriages, is long overdue.

"For 300 years one of the major issues for Muslims has been that their marriages aren't recognised and their children are illegitimate," he says.

"In terms of a psychological victory for them - I think they will feel part of the whole democratic process."

However, some clerics say South Africa's secular constitution cannot be allowed to supersede Islamic law.

Mohammad de Vries, of the Islamic Unity Convention, opposes the implementation of the bill in its current form.

"For the past 350 year or more we have successfully been regulating our Muslim marriages," he says.

"We don't need to go into such a bill and afterwards find out what the consequences of this bill are going to be."

'Checks and balances'

The bill deals with inheritance, maintenance and divorce - but the issue of marriage is the most crucial since the other matters inevitably originate from marriage.

Mr de Vries, and some other Muslims, fear Sharia law could be compromised by the secular constitution.

Nashita Davids, with her two children Kaashifa (with uniform) and Kauthar
Nashita Davids says she wants only what she worked for

They, however, are in the minority in opposing the bill. Muslim lawyer Igsaan Higgins dismisses their concerns.

"The judge that will sit on a matter like this will be a Muslim judge," he says.

"You will have members of the Ulema [Muslim council] who will be assessors.

"There will be proper checks and balances making sure that the Sharia does not get contaminated."

Mr Higgins says the Muslim Personal Law will in fact protect the community's interests.

"There is need for change and the only way to change it is to codify the principles of Muslim law in order to give a voice to those vulnerable members of society prejudiced against by the inherited colonial system," he says.

The South African government is ready to implement the bill - but they are waiting for the green light from the Muslim community who, after 15 years of discussion, are still battling to reach consensus.

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