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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
Viewpoint: Women and Sharia law

Aina Khan
Lawyer specialising in Islamic law

Aina Khan is a solicitor in London. Her family is originally from Pakistan, and she has grown up with a strong commitment to women's rights in Islam. She specialises in achieving solutions using Sharia law principles in the English courts.

In my practice as a Muslim woman solicitor in London, I daily handle cases in which clients wish to have their Islamic legal rights recognised under English law.

A common problem is that some Muslim women have never had their marriages registered under English law.

We register our cars, should we not also register our marriage?
If the Islamic ceremony takes place in the UK, it is essential to also have a civil registration.

Otherwise the woman has no matrimonial rights and is left with the much lesser rights of a 'cohabitee'.

Although there are moves to increase these rights, at present the view is that marriage should be given a higher status than merely living together.

When my client is a cohabitee, I have to obtain a 'Declaration of Trust' from the court, which decides in what shares the couple intended to hold any assets.

This is a complex matter, and it is so much easier to get an equitable settlement under matrimonial rights.

It is surprisingly common for even well-educated Muslim women not to register their marriages, deeming it unnecessary, only to face enormous problems on divorce or death.

We are living as British citizens - if we register our cars, should we not also register our marriage?

Financial rights

Sharia (Islamic) law states that after marriage, a woman keeps the money and property she owns.

It is a husband's primary duty to financially maintain his wife and children
This was a startling concept when Islam introduced it 1400 years ago - until the 19th century, women could not even own property in the UK!

It belonged either to her male relatives or to her husband.

For Muslims, it is a husband's primary duty to financially maintain his wife and children, with any contribution the wife makes being voluntary.

Further, to avoid disputes later on, the wife is given a set financial sum at the time of the marriage, which is written down as a term of the 'Nikah' or marriage contract.

This sum is known as 'Haq Mehr', and is intended to give the wife enough to survive on in the event of divorce or widowhood.

Often, a husband refuses to pay the 'Haq Mehr', which we then enforce in English law as a contractual right.

Also, the use of prenuptial agreements is becoming more common in the UK.

The 'Nikah Nama', or Islamic marriage certificate, can be viewed as such an agreement, since it addresses the issue of the financial settlement and is signed before witnesses.

Forced marriages

Muslim girls from Britain participate in the opening ceremony of the Third Muslim Women Games in Tehran
Islam liberated women says Aina Khan
In Islam, a woman's consent has to be obtained for marriage.

This was a truly liberating right, as it was given at a time when families arranged marriages to align power and fortunes.

In spite of being set free by Islam so long ago, many women - from the Indian sub-continent in particular - are still becoming victims of forced marriages today.

The family forces a woman to marry a man of their choice, often from 'back home', and her wishes are overridden.

The woman is stuck in a loveless, miserable marriage.

Once she becomes aware that such a marriage is not acceptable under Islam, she can obtain a simple annulment from the Sharia Council in the UK.

Under English law, we help her obtain a Nullity decree, which declares that the marriage was void from the start because of the 'duress' used.

English law can be extremely accommodating of Shariah law rights
This enables the woman to state that she was never legally married, an important point when divorce can so often be a stigma.

It is essential to state that a common misconception is that if the woman can prove she is a virgin, she can obtain a Nullity decree.

Quite aside from the fact that the courts would find it distasteful to subject a girl to providing such medical evidence, there is a legal bar - the marriage can only be void if there is 'wilful non-consummation' by the other party i.e. (usually) the man is refusing to consummate.

Since the reality is usually the opposite, this option is not available to many. English law can be extremely accommodating of Sharia law rights.

With the growth in numbers of practicing Muslims in the UK, and more women increasingly proud of their Islamic legal rights, there is an increasing need for UK lawyers who recognise the work that can be done to ensure equality and justice under English law.

Do you have any comments about this article? Send us your views using the form at the top right of this page.

Your comments:

An excellent article highlighting the equal status of women in Islam. Sharia law does allow a man to marry four wives but only on certain strict circumstances like war, when there are more widows and less men. People sometimes get so carried away in propounding leniency that they do so at the stake of justice. If only they pondered a little on the various reasons as to why Islam prescribes laws that it prescribes. They would have found them to be well-reasoned and just.
Mohd Anisul Karim, UAE

Those who criticise Sharia law should know that this law gave rights to men, to women and to children long before they were even a concern in this country. In fact, Sharia law also gave animals rights, which are relatively new compared to other rights in the west.
Talal, UK

There is no doubt that Islam respects women rights, how can we open a debate about Islam when advertisement companies in the west cannot advertise anything without using a woman's body? Is that the kind of respect you are talking about? If that is what is happening then I would prefer to be called a fundamentalist Moslem...at least our women are given there rights but not to cross the red lines of discipline and dignity..
Ahmed Lashin, Cairo, Egypt

People with a legal status under one law system, but living under another, have a problem in general. This is not unique to Muslim immigrants or to Muslim women; we see similar issues on a smaller scale where UK law and US law differ. What do you do, if your marriage, divorce, inheritance right or duty to maintain your parent or second wife is not recognised either by the court, or by the social welfare department, adoption agency, whatever? You need a lawyer like Aina Khan who knows both systems, and can find ways of expressing your right or duty or status in terms acceptable to UK law. This is not the same as having a dual system of law, or abandoning the secular basis of western law. More power to her elbow. We need more like her, not just practicing law but also advising government departments on policy-making and specific cases.
Sen McGlinn, The Netherlands

It's not about what women want or what men want
Rizwanullah, Pakistan
The problem is you've got a civilization which believes in 'this life' and the will of the people, versus one which believes in an afterlife and the will of God, hence the gulf. Also, it is shocking that people with Muslim names in the West explain away major tenets of their faith as chauvinistic 'interpretations' by obscurantist men. Look, the basis of this faith, Islam, is "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger." This is the faith. Our perpetually changing prejudices should not be allowed to tamper with the integrity of the faith. It's not about what women want or what men want; it is about what God wants as relayed by His prophet. That's all.
Rizwanullah, Pakistan

What a fascinating and enlightening article - and what an even more engaging debate following it! As an atheist, I have neither axe to grind nor a candle to hold for any religion. The debate around this article often focuses on people's own beliefs being used to justify their prejudices about Islam (both for and against). From my reading of Islam, it is a deeply honourable, spiritual and relevant faith. But its advocates too often seem to be rooted in its past, using ancient legal systems to justify their narrow attitudes. In the West, we need to hear more stories like that of Aina Khan, who is trying to relate Islam to the modern world. I welcome the fabulous diversity of culture in our country and I reject bigots of all hues.
James, UK

I'm from Egypt and I cannot have a legal marriage based only on Shariah
Abdellatif Ahmed, Egypt
The truth is that most Muslim countries have marriage regulations which are not mentioned in, and which are even not accepted by Shariah. So marriage in the UK should be registered under UK regulations, the same as in any other Western or Eastern country as is the case in Egypt, Jordan, etc. I'm from Egypt and I cannot have a legal marriage based only on Shariah. Islam and Christianity are not relevant to this discussion which is being used to highlight weak points and practice attack techniques.
Abdellatif Ahmed, Egypt

There seems to be some hypocrisy in this otherwise interesting article. If it is true that Islam 'gave women equal rights', why is it still possible for husbands to divorce their wives by a simple verbal declaration? Why are females treated, apparently, as the property of their fathers or husbands? And why do so many Muslim women and even small girls feel forced to cover themselves from head to foot? I read a book by a woman Muslim scholar who said that this practice is not actually demanded by the Quran, but based merely on the interpretation of one verse by some authorities. In other words, it is a cultural, not a religious practice. What may have been progressive 1000 years ago or so may not be anything of the sort in the modern world.
Laurence, UK

I envy women living in the UK and the rights they have, I recently have been a victim of Islam and shariaa law and the lack of civil rights to protect me. Islam is against women all the way and that is from experience.
Rim, Dubai

Under the Sharia law, I would be severely punished
Peter, Germany
I'm a gay man. Under the Sharia law, I would be severely punished if found out - probably killed -although I didn't choose my sexuality freely. So, I'm really scared when I read that Sharia law is being applied in the UK.
Peter, Germany

People talk about "stoning to death" because they read a story about a women in Africa and have become experts on the matter without knowing or understanding anything about it. Nobody mentioned that men can also be adulterous and punished the same way. More importantly, nobody mentioned that in order to prove that someone is guilty of adultery four witnesses must testify that they have seen the actual intercourse, which is almost impossible to happen. Nobody mentioned that a woman or a man need only swear that they are innocent to have the accusation refuted. It applies to men and women who are married and have stable marital lives. The only way someone can be stoned is if they choose to come forward and ask for this punishment in order to repent┐
Leena Carr, Canada

I am appalled that sharia law seems to be in some senses running in parallel to British law. If Muslims live in Britain they must abide by British laws, and British laws alone. Sharia is atavistic, repressive and divisive.
Damian Lanigan, UK / USA

Women rights in the West were developed over the course of many centuries
Malik Abd'Al-Malik, US
While some very ugly things were said about Islam here, I don't believe that malice was behind them but ignorance. Firstly, and I can't speak for the UK, but here in the US any clergyman of any religion need only fill out a registration form so that he can perform legally binding marriages. Secondly, it is true that today's western women enjoy more liberty, than their Muslim counterparts in the third world, but it is equally true that this is a relatively recent phenomenon (within the last century or so). Women rights in the West were developed over the course of many centuries; the Third World should be given the same chance to develop without outside coercion.
Malik Abd'Al-Malik, US

The writer here chooses to ignore the injustices to women prescribed in the Sharia, considering only the points which will make the Sharia attractive. Do you really think the UK should accept a law which prescribes cold-blooded murder by stoning for adultery for the woman concerned and a nominal fine for the man for the same offence? A law which allows men to marry 4 women at the same time. A law which allows the man to obtain a divorce, without any reasons, just by uttering the word 'talaq'. A law which does not recognise the right of the women to vote or to choose their ruler. These are only some of the injustices under Sharia.
Jon Adams, Bristol, UK

The women in Muslim (not Islamic!) countries is not representative of Islam
H Shaker, UK
I do believe that Islam itself did raise the status of women before any 'modern' civilisation but I also agree, as a Muslim, that the status of the women in Muslim (not Islamic!) countries is not representative of Islam. Over many centuries due to various reasons, women have gone from being pillars of society at the time of Prophet Mohamed to simply being almost nothing in many Muslim countries where many backward non-Islamic traditions have been introduced into Muslim life e.g. female circumcision, honour killings etc.
H Shaker, UK

I am constantly baffled by the assertions of distinguished Muslims, women as well as men - that Muslim women have the same dignity and rights as men, when to non-Muslims it is blatantly obvious that, whatever the Quran states, in daily life here in the UK and around the world, Muslim women are treated at best, as the intellectual and moral inferiors of men, and at worst, as subhuman. Having worked as a journalist in several Islamic states over the years, I am also shocked at the disrespect shown by Muslim men to non-Muslim women, including myself. I have always been scrupulous about how I dress and behave in such circumstances. Having an open mind, and a desire to understand other cultures and theologies, I would appreciate answers to how so many men who consider themselves devout Muslims, simply ignore those parts of the Quran which don't suit their desire to control the female half of their societies. Thank You
Marian Shiels, UK

When Islamic laws were set up 1400 years ago they probably were very modern for those days, especially considering they were introduced in a tribal society with pagan customs. The problem is that they have not changed a bit during those centuries and are now hopelessly lagging behind. They have been overtaken by reality and modernism.
Roeland, Amsterdam, NL

Let people practice what they practice as long as it doesn't impose on others
Ali, UK
I can't believe those on this page who go on about democracy. Do they really understand what democracy is? Let people practice what they practice as long as it doesn't impose on others, be they Muslim, Jewish, Christian or whatever. That applies as much to Muslims as non-Muslims. After all isn't that the fundamental rule of Democracy?
Ali, UK

The sources of Islamic law are divine revelation in the form of Quran & Sunnah. Obviously non-Muslims will not believe in these sources as divine. Secular systems have their basis in human intellect, making laws exercised via a select few powerful members of society; capitalist democracies are not inherently beneficial to humanity. On the other hand Islam promotes the abolition of tyranny and exploitation of humans by humans.
Ansari, USA

How would Sharia Law be imposed on non-Moslems? A system that doesn't treat people equally has no place as part of democratic justice.
Matt, UK

Islam was by no means the first religion to give "rights" to women
Helen, England
Islam was by no means the first religion to give "rights" to women. Ancient Egypt is one example of a society which did not institutionalise discrimination on grounds of gender. The Romans were among the worst discriminators against women - women had almost no access to Roman law - quite a contrast to the Anglo-Saxons and as someone else has said the Celts. The Prophet himself appears to have intended his foundation to be benign rather than repressive - for example the hijab or Islamic head covering signifies that the individual is under the protection of Islam, and should therefore be shown respect. The problem for Islam (as for other religions and philosophical systems) is that it is practiced by a very diverse range of people, many of whom are not of an egalitarian mind.
Helen, England

Judging from many of the comments posted on the forum, it is evident that most do not understand the true Shari'ah laws regarding women. I am a British born Muslim woman, and would really appreciate it if those living in the West would get to know me first before I am judged. I hear people speaking on 'my behalf', making everyone aware of how 'oppressed' I am. I wonder how many people know how it feels to have to sit back and watch the media and society make such assumptions about you? I personally find this more oppressive than any Shari'ah law.
Fatima Mahmood, England

Khan seems to be providing a good and sensible service
Jen, UK
I find some of these comments incredible! Aina Khan is not trying to replace British law with Sharia, but helping Muslims to understand what the legal situation is here. Telling Muslims to register their marriages under English law, helping those women forced into marriages by giving them a way out under English law. No one is suggesting here that English law should be changed to chop limbs off or make women cover their heads. Khan seems to be providing a good and sensible service. Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking piece.
Jen, UK

I think what Ms Khan means is that there is a conceptual overlap between sharia and English law in the area of marriage. Sharia cannot [and will not] be used in the UK because that would need the consent of Parliament.
Jorge, UK

I certainly wouldn't want to live under Sharia law
Peter Shields, UK
I certainly wouldn't want to live under Sharia law - everywhere it is implemented it seems to bring tyranny and mob rule. However, those who argue that national laws should be entirely secular seem to be unaware that secularism is also a faith-based worldview. To say that religion should have no part in forming a country's statutes is naive, prejudiced, intolerant and discriminatory - in fact, all the things they tend to accuse religion of!
Peter Shields, UK

As a Swede living in Malaysia, I find it interesting to hear Ms Khan argue that Sharia law can be seen to promote women's interests. Here in Malaysia, the current hot topic is whether Muslim men can divorce one of their wives by sending an SMS message with the required Arabic formula. Much to the embarrassment of the comparatively progressive Malaysian government, a state Sharia court found that this was indeed the case.
Harald, Malaysia

If a Muslim woman lives in the UK and has been married under the Sharia law of Islam, she should be obliged to have a civil English marriage. This is especially true if she resides in the UK or has become a citizen of the UK. If this is not done, then the marriage must be considered to be cohabitation without the legal rights of a civilian marriage in England.
Joe Nigrin, Guatemala

In my opinion if you live in this country, you abide by UK law. We can't start making exception; it'll be chaos.
Helen, UK

I would worry about any law based on religion. I am a (practising) Christian and I am aware that most UK laws are at least roughly based on Christian law. However, these laws are relatively free to change and be re-interpreted. If the law is based on a text, or worse, is taken to be the literal word of God, that law can never change. It is by this method that society gets trapped in a never-ending regressive cycle.
Mark, UK

Islam is heavily restrictive of women's rights
James McNaught, UK
I read here comments about how Islam was the first religion to give women equal rights. This is not strictly true as the Qura'an states that a woman's testimony in court is only worth half that of a man's - only one example of restrictions on women. At the time, Islam may have been quite liberating but compared to modern society, Islam is heavily restrictive of women's rights
James McNaught, UK

Women in the West face hardships supporting themselves and their children and are used as objects by the media. Is this what the West perceives as giving rights to women? Under Sharia Law, women are given full rights and more than men. They are not obliged to work and be provided by their husbands.
Ismail, UK

I agree completely with John Mullins below. How can a law that condemns a woman to be stoned to death because she had a child outside of the wedlock, be accommodated within the law of the democratic Western society is beyond me.
Byungmoon Cho, South Korean living in London

Sharia law comes with the precept that the law should bring satisfaction not fairness
John Mullins, UK
Sharia law comes with the precept that the law should bring satisfaction not fairness. It does not give power to the people, but takes power from them and hand it to the mob culture that Sharia inevitably breeds. Militant Islamism is the biggest threat to Islam today - not the West. If Islam cannot mature as a culture and take care of its extremist fringes, including Sharia, there will always be a resolute defence, by the West, of its own philosophies and values using prejudice and force, if necessary. As for all the poor citizens that have to live under an immoral tyranny created by the fear and loathing that Sharia spews, the time will come when your freedom will be at hand.
John Mullins, UK

When will we stop calling names and painting whole nations with a single brush? It is exactly that type or reasoning that has led to terrorist acts in both the East and West. Islam is a great religion and I should think that we would not base our understanding of almost one billion people on articles posted on BBC or any other site. For every one case of abuse in the Muslim world related on BBC or any other news program, there are hundreds of thousands of good incidents that are never heard of. Who wants to hear about Muslims building wells in Sudan, or Muslims funding schools in Africa, or Muslims rebuilding homes? These stories won't sell in the media. As for living in the West, what about Muslims who were born here? Where should we send them back to?
Cilia, USA

I am against any religion having a public or prescriptive role in our society
Lizzie, UK
It is nonsensical to impose religious dogma as part of the law within a democracy; particularly given the struggle that women have gone through to achieve relative freedom within this democracy. I am against any religion having a public or prescriptive role in our society and wish that 'faith schools' did not exist. Once you put God/religion in front of a statement you can justify just about anything - including cutting a hand off someone for theft. Who defines theft? Are we not all guilty of some kind of theft? Should we then all be limbless? No please keep religion in the church, synagogue, mosque etc for those who wish to partake and leave the rest of us to claim by the sanctity of reason.
Lizzie, UK

Lizzie's comments surprise me. Atheism is often presented as a wholly reasoned approach but there are foundational assumptions in atheism just as there are in religion. To tell all people with a religious faith that there is no place for this in public life is simply to impose your own atheistic worldview on others - a bit strange when tolerance is almost a religious creed to atheists.
Beth, Australia

Thank you for an article that shows Islam and the UK in a positive light. What a pleasant change.
Nadia Abdul-Sabur, UK / Egypt

A two-tier system of law will destroy the West
Jane, California, USA
If Muslims are not able to live under Western secular law, they shouldn't be living in the West. A two-tiered form of justice is not workable. It doesn't work in India (where Muslim personal law is recognized) and it won't work in the West. Our nations were formed under the 2,000 year-old Western principle of individual rights before the law, not on "group" rights. A two-tier system of law will destroy the West.
Jane, California, USA

Why wouldn't a Muslim man in the UK register his marriage? Does he not acknowledge the government's right to create laws to govern the populace? It seems only logical. Muslim countries also pass additional laws and regulations not found in the Sharia, don't they? This point is not clear in the article. Joshua Godinez, United States of America

The essential problem with so called 'Islamic Law' is that it has little or no validity in N Europe or non Arab cultures. What is needed is a Western Interpretation of Islamic law to sit alongside those of the four great schools
Andrew Stone, UK

The laws of a state should be secular and not based on any one religion
Neelkumar Patel, UK
So if sharia law is valid in the UK, should a husband who wants his wife stoned to death because she has committed adultery be allowed to have her stoned because it is his Islamic legal right which is recognised under English law? Maybe Islamic law is beneficial in some ways but there are some grim sides to it also. I think that the laws of a state should be secular and not based on any one religion.
Neelkumar Patel, UK

As far as I know, Islamic law has little or no regard for the right of women. Case study in Nigeria: how could a woman be sentenced to death for adultery, and the man with whom she committed the offence should not share the same penalty.
Solomon Villa, Sierra Leone

Actually the fact that women were not allowed to own property in the UK until the 19th century is a common fallacy. In Celtic society women could inherit property and retain the wealth they brought into a marriage. Also, they were entitled to a split of the goods in family. Plus they were allowed to have a say in the running of the tribe, be judges, advocates or priests and even divorce their husbands for being impotent, adulterous or grossly overweight. While property laws did change in the UK in the Middle Ages, the idea that Islam was some sort of advanced liberating ideology bringing equality to women is frankly ridiculous. Take a look at the current position of women within Muslim societies all around the world; women are in no way as equal as they are in non-Muslim western societies.
Richard Evans, UK

One of the posts says: "While property laws did change in the UK in the Middle Ages, the idea that Islam was some sort of advanced liberating ideology bringing equality to women is frankly ridiculous." Why is it 'frankly ridiculous?' Is it ridiculous because it was, oh my God, an Islamic ideology? I don't see anything ridiculous in recognizing the historical fact that Muslim women were much more advanced in being endowed with unprecedented civil and social rights.
Nazim Haqqani, US

Islam offered a defence for women in its time and left space for supple interpretation
Suzan, Sweden
Islam offered a defence for women in its time and left space for supple interpretation. One can also read the Qura'an and find no dogma about the veil nor adultery. It stresses proper evaluation and encourages insight in several passages. It leaves space for a broader form of thinking; this seems to be disregarded by Muslim men.
Suzan, Sweden

In response to H Brooke, UK: The slave owners were better off than the slaves also. The West controls eastern economies using all sorts of tools including generating wars. People are simply flocking to the West for economic reasons. Let's open our eyes and get real. We should take the best of both the West and Islam.
A Rana, London, UK

I find this article and the site "Islam and the West" indicative of the BBC's continued bias in favour of totalitarian regimes. The fact that citizens in western societies are rich, better off and enjoy far greater human rights than any country under the Islam yoke cannot be ignored. There is no mass immigration to any Muslim country, precisely the opposite - people are leaving these countries in droves and for good reason. They are run by dictators, religious police and tyrants. Women are treated little better than slaves, which is why I find the 'Viewpoint' article the epitome of your biased coverage. Women are being stoned, forced into marriage, killed by their families in so-called honour killings - but does the BBC mention this - oh no! Instead we get some political correct pap about how 'liberated' Muslim women are and how 'oppressed' they are by coming to Britain.
H Brooke, UK

Please will H. Brooke distinguish between religion and culture? A lot of what he says is related to culture and not to religion.
Zoyz Gul, Leeds, UK

H Brooke is, like many others, confusing Islamic views with extremism. Islam was the first religion to give women equal rights. And the only reason people 'flock' to the West is to escape the fruits of the West's doing. The US put Saddam in power, the CIA supplied Osama Bin Laden with weapons, Palestinians and Jews were living peacefully until Britain occupied the area, the same can be said of Hindus and Muslims in India. South Africa would not have gone through the Apartheid period if it were not for Britain, and Africa is in tatters due to the slave trade and occupation by Western countries. So why should we not come to the West? Islam does not teach violence but we only see the extremists in the media, which is obviously biased. I've never read about the IRA being 'extremist Christian fundamentalists'.
Q Alam, UK

Q. Alam, like many others, seems to believe that for some reason, Islam along with other cultures he mentions are somehow fundamentally inferior, victims of another culture. Does this line of reasoning mean that the West somehow is 'superior' and can go willy nilly imposing it's will on other cultures, and that those cultures should simply rot in some nihilistic quagmire, unable or unwilling to do anything about it?
D. Biasutti, Toronto, Canada

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