Let’s look at the example of veiling where women are forced to wear the Afghan-style burqa. This is utterly wrong as it is a woman’s choice as to how she should dress. Some in Afghanistan, however, who would argue that it is a more traditional society, where women being uncovered is ‘alien’ to the ‘culture’. This really is about culture not religion because this is absent in the majority of Muslim countries bar a few exceptions.
Back in Britain, some Muslim women do face pressure to veil, but on the whole veiled Muslim women are exercising their own freedom of choice. This can be seen from the fact they tend to be younger, well-educated, British-born women, often decked out in the latest fashions. These women are exercising the same freedom of choice that Britain says it is fighting to give Afghan women.
Now let’s look at marriage. Married Afghan women have little protection from mistreatment and abuse. The scale of magnitude in Afghanistan is clearly different to the UK, but British Muslim women can suffer from lack of protection by the law in Britain too. If we care about Muslim women’s rights in Afghanistan, we must demonstrate clearly that we care about them here as well.
I’m referring to the ‘nikah’, the Islamic wedding ceremony, which is not recognised under British law as a legal marriage. For this, the bride and groom must undertake a further civil marriage ceremony. A Church of England marriage by comparison is automatically registered as a legally recognised marriage. For Muslims, as with many of other religions, it is the religious ceremony that is paramount, and once this is conducted the couple are considered married. Rightly or wrongly, the civil marriage is often not carried out.
If the marriage doesn’t work out, or the husband leaves the wife, the wife is still married but has no legal protection under British law. Further, if the husband proves unscrupulous, he can marry another wife legally under British law without committing bigamy. Recognising the nikah as a valid British marriage with all the parameters of the civil marriage is the first step to solving this problem. Some mosques do insist that the civil marriage certificate is proffered before they will conduct the nikah, but these are too few. Tying the nikah into civil marriage has nothing to do with ‘Islamifying’ Britain, but is rather a small development which will offer much needed British legal protection to Muslim women in marriage.
Of course the Muslim community — mosques and Imams — who have conducted the marriage ceremony should be held responsible should a marriage break down, but this doesn’t always happen. Ensuring that mosques and Imams are abiding by procedures which give both bride and groom their full rights is the next step, and for that we need to talk about those so called ‘shariah courts.’ In fact, a better description would be ‘Islamic advisory panel’. At the moment they consist of volunteers with various levels of Islamic training, probably few social or counselling skills and even less legal training under British law. This is hardly surprising, since they state quite openly that their remit is to offer Islamic advice. Often faced with marital disputes Muslim women prefer to go to these panels because their faith is important to them and they want an Islamic resolution to their problems. Also, they live as part of a family and community, and any resolution agreed with such a panel is more likely to stick with the people amongst which they live.
By recognising the nikah as legally valid, these subsequent links in the chain will be forced to deal with such issues with higher standards and in line with legal norms, thereby respecting the religious wishes of the Muslim woman, and at the same time affording her full protection in the law. A standard of behaviour and guidance amongst mosques and Imams becomes normalised over time, and the woman becomes automatically protected.
If we are busy fighting in Afghanistan for legal protections to be put in place for Muslim women, then we need to do the same for Muslim women here. The issues are different in magnitude but are still about both choice and protection. Not only will implementing such laws and protection in Britain squash accusations that ‘saving’ Muslim women is just a pretext for war, not only will it actually protect Muslim women, but more importantly it will also demonstrate that in word as well as in practice we are genuine in our intentions and actions.