The documentary[1]

Channel 4’s November documentary, The Truth about Muslim Marriage, discussed how the Muslim religious marriage, niqah, is not recognised under law in the UK unless it is accompanied by a civil ceremony. Through undertaking the first major survey of married Muslim women in the UK, the documentary aimed to find out how many women are affected by this. The women surveyed were chosen from areas of the UK where the Muslim population is over 20% and the sample size was designed to reflect what is known about the British Muslim population. The survey was overseen by “academics, statisticians, and lawyers”, some of whom also trained the researchers, who themselves were all Muslim women in order to ensure they could identify with the community they were interviewing.

4/5 of those surveyed were born in the UK. 99% of the surveyed had a niqah ceremony but 3/5 of these women did not have a civil ceremony as well. A quarter of this group did not realise that their marriage was not recognised under UK law. One reason this might be the case is that laws surrounding the niqah vary from country to country and thus, confusion has been created about whether or not it is legally recognised.

Marriage in the UK is currently based on a Christian model of marriage; Quaker, Church of England, and Jewish marriages are automatically registered under law through the Marriage Act, which was introduced in the 18th century, but this act has not been changed since apart from to include same-sex marriage. Another reason for the amount of niqah marriages which have not been accompanied by a civil ceremony could be that it is difficult for those faiths not included in the Marriage Act to organise civil ceremonies to accompany their religious ceremonies. In order to do this, 28 days of notice must be given, the place of marriage must be registered to perform the ceremony (places of worship are not automatically registered), and a trained registrar must do the paperwork.

This also draws attention to the fact that it is not just Muslims who are affected by this issue. However, the documentary states that Muslims may be disproportionately affected because, for cultural and traditional reasons, Muslims do not tend to marry at the mosque, the imam comes to them. Thus, even though few mosques (1 in 10) are registered to perform marriages anyway, even the ones that are registered are less likely to be used for religious ceremonies. The documentary presents the Marriage Act as failing to take into account the current diverse population in the UK.

Only 12.4% of those surveyed were told by the imam what was required to be married legally, with the documentary suggesting that imams might not understand the requirements of UK marriage well enough themselves.

The documentary framed this unawareness as very much a women’s issue, a view shared by the Muslim Women’s Council, as a non-legally recognised marriage means husbands can leave wives and children without financial support and rights to supposedly shared assets.

Campaigner Aina Khan features heavily in the documentary. She has been highlighting issues of religious-only marriage to the government for over ten years and wants Islamic religious marriage to have to legally be accompanied by civil marriage.

78% of respondents to the survey said they wanted their niqah to be legally valid under UK law, which the documentary termed to be the “overwhelming majority”. This would require changing the Marriage Act, which there are already calls to do with regards to cohabitation. Another possible solution could be to put emphasis on the person carrying out the ceremony legalising it, rather than the place of marriage. Changing the whole Act in this way prevents trying to slot religious communities into the existing Act, and instead creates a law that suits everyone, it could be argued.

However, some are not happy about the Act being changed to make religious ceremonies automatically legally binding. Out of the 900 women surveyed, 2/3 of the women knew that their marriage was not legal, and 2/3 of this group did not plan to have a civil ceremony. There are several reasons the documentary points to when explaining this.

Firstly, niqah is free but civil ceremonies cost. In addition, the documentary states that Muslim women may be worried about their access to legal aid if they had a civil ceremony and then had to get divorced. Legal divorce is not only time-consuming but costly, whereas niqah is not, and when ethnic minority communities in the UK have higher rates of poverty, this is understandable.

Younger women may also use the niqah as an opportunity to get to know their partner respectfully without making a legal commitment, as often Muslim couples cannot have physical contact until after they have had a niqah. Thus, having a non-civil ceremony allows a couple the chance to essentially act as girlfriend and boyfriend and have sex before, or without, legally committing to one another. This could explain why only 19.6% of those surveyed who were under 25 had a civil marriage along with their religious marriage.

Polygamy is also another reason why many women may choose not to have a civil ceremony. The practice is illegal in the UK, but if religious marriages had to be legally registered, as changes to the Marriage Act could require, polygamous marriages would most likely become illegal. While 88.7% of respondents to the survey did not want to be in a polygamous marriage, 10.9% of those interviewed were in polygamous marriages. While 37% of these women had not agreed to a polygamous marriage when they got married, 10% of those involved in a polygamous relationship were worried about a change in the law because it could make their marriages illegal. The survey did not take into account whether the women in these polygamous marriages had been married inside or outside the UK.

The response

Christian Concern picks up on the Private Member’s Bill which Baroness Cox is introducing into the House of Lords “that would make it a legal requirement for religious marriages to be registered”. It points to Britain’s lack of requirement to register religious marriages as a failure to protect women, and states that Baroness Cox’s Marriage Act 1949 (Amendment) Bill should be brought it in order to protect them[2].

In the Independent, Sufiya Ahmed also states that the current system needs to be changed in order to protect women. She suggests women suffer especially in the current situation because they are naturally unequal in Islamic marriage and divorce, and that “the lack of protection for these women under the country’s law that has bed to sharia councils springing up in the UK”. She argues these councils offer them the protection British law does not by not allowing Islamic religious ceremonies to be automatically legally registered. She concludes “[i]t’s not often we can say that British Muslim women’s rights should match those of the women in Muslim countries” where women do have these rights[3].

Khan writes that changing the law might be too simple a solution to the problem which Muslim women face under the current system in the UK. She writes that with regards to polygamy, the niqah cannot neatly fit into British law without one of them adapting. The way in which Islamic divorce law would fit in with British divorce law would also have to be considered if the Marriage Act were to be changed to make religious marriage automatically legally binding, as “[b]oth nikah and talaq processes, as currently implemented … aren’t nearly as robust enough as they need to be for a civilian court of law”. Instead, attention should be focused on increasing education about, and setting up regulating bodies and standards to oversee, the niqah in the UK[4]. states that the concerns raised in the documentary are not a new thing, and that the issue presented raises questions about the quality of British imams and why they are not better regulated. It also expresses concern with the way in which young British Muslims understand the niqah if they use it as a way to date, and questions whether not having a civil ceremony after being religiously marriage is committing zina by not following the law of the land[5].

Shah criticises Ahmed’s statement about British women not having the same rights as women in Islamic countries while criticising the Channel 4 documentary, stating that it is not the case that men and women are equal in marriage under Sharia law. A key criticism of Shah with regards to the documentary is in regards to its methodology, as he states that it “portrays the phenomenon of unregistered marriage among Muslims as a problem of much greater magnitude than it is”, and that it does not explore more statistics it collected about Muslim marriage in its survey or the specific reasons why some of these answers were given. While he states that the survey “does provide a more reliable measure of the situation than we have had so far”, he states that “the analysis and presentation of the answers is disappointing”. For example, the documentary’s “key finding” is that 60% of the women surveyed were only in a religious marriage. The emphasis the documentary places on this figure ignores the fact that presumably 40% of those surveyed are legally married, and that 66% of those who only have a religious marriage knew that their religious marriage was not legally binding. He writes that, “[i]n percentage terms, this amounts to something like 6-17% of the total number of women surveyed not being aware that their unregistered marriage was not valid under English law”; he implies that the numbers of women who have actually been misled by the current system is sensationalised. An article on appears to think the same, stating that the documentary is about a “non-issue”[6]. Shah’s other key criticism of the documentary, as well as questioning the way in which the terms ‘Muslims’ and ‘South Asians’ seem to be used interchangeably, is that “it argues for legal change on a rather weak foundation”[7].

Dr Nazreen Nawaz writes for the right-wing organisation Hizb ut tahrir and criticises the documentary for portraying Islam as treating women unfairly. Instead, she lays the blame squarely with the “British secular system”[8]. Meanwhile the American right-wing organisation, Liberty Nation, reports the statistics from the documentary before commenting, “[b]ut by far the most disturbing trend in British Muslim marriages is the increase of child marriages which are also permissible under Sharia law”. It reports that a change in British marriage law could “worryingly” lead to the legalisation of polygamy or the legal recognition of Sharia law in Britain. It reports that the smallest change “would set a dangerous precedent that could be used by Islamic activists to push for further concessions toward legitimizing full Sharia law in Britain and other non-Muslim countries”. It also describes how the unequal treatment of women in Sharia is another reason why changes to the Marriage Act should not be brought into law[9].

[1] Channel 4, 2017; Francois, 2017.

[2] Christian Concern, 2017.

[3] Ahmed, 2017.

[4] Khan, 2017.

[5] About Islam, 2017.

[6] 5Pillars, 2017.

[7] Shah, 2017.

[8] Nawaz, 2017.

[9] Valkovic, 2017.

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About Islam. (2017) ‘The Truth About Britain’s “Un/Married” Muslims’. [online] 22 November.

Ahmed, S. (2017) ‘No one talks about the fact that in sharia courts, British Muslim women have fewer rights than women in Islamic countries’. [online] 20 November.

Channel 4. (2017) ‘The Truth About Muslim Marriage’. [online] (video).

Christian Concern. (2017) ‘The Truth About Muslim Marriage’. [online] 23 November.

Francois, M. (2017) ‘The truth about Britain’s ‘unmarried’ Muslim wives – and why it’s your problem, too’. [online] 21 November.

Khan, M. (2017) ‘To Nikah or Not?’ [online] 25 November.

Nawaz, N. (2017) ‘The ‘Truth’ about Channel 4’s Sham “The Truth About Muslim Marriage” Documentary’. [online] 23 November.

Shah, P. (2017) ‘Does Channel 4’s Documentary Provide the Truth about Muslim Marriage?’ [online] 7 December.

Valkovic, L. (2017) ‘The Truth About Muslim Marriages and the Sad Cost’. [online] 25 November.

5Pillars. (2017) ‘The Truth About Muslim Marriage: A fuss over nothing’. [online] 22 November.