For the first time in the UK, a British court has recognised Sharia law after a judge made a landmark divorce ruling which could change the way Islamic marriage and divorce works in the country.
The high court ruled that an estranged couple’s nikah falls under British matrimonial law despite it not being legally recognised as such, reported The Telegraph.
This means Nasreen Akhtar will be free to bring her case to the divorce court and claim her share of the assets of her marriage. She previously would not have been able to do this.
In the high-profile case, Akhtar and her businessman husband Mohammed Shabaz Khan were deemed to have had a valid marriage.
The judge said the union should be recognised because the couple, who took their vows in 1998, lived as man and wife, introduced each other as such and had expectations similar to a British marriage contract.
The case will have significant implications for women who marry under Sharia law but not UK law and could give them the right to divorce their husbands and split the assets related to the union, as well as securing a divorce more easily.
A report commissioned by British Prime Minister Theresa May when she was home secretary revealed earlier this year that many women in Islamic marriages do not realise they have no legal protection under UK law unless they have a second civil ceremony alongside the nikah.
Under Sharia law women often have to appeal to Sharia councils, largely made up of men, in order to be released from their union and some have to make concessions in order to do so. Men are not obligated to do the same.
In the high court case Akhtar’s husband sought to block her application for divorce in the UK court on the basis that they were never legally married.
But Justice Williams decided that the marriage was “entered into in disregard of certain requirements as to the formation of marriage”.
He said the marriage was therefore “void” and that Akhtar is entitled to a decree of nullity. If he had ruled it was a non-marriage she would not have been able to make a case in the British divorce court.
The judge heard that the couple, who have a Pakistani background, had lived in London, Birmingham and Dubai. They had taken part in a nikah ceremony at a restaurant in Southall, west London, nearly 20 years ago.
Akhtar said the ceremony was conducted by an imam before about 150 guests.
Hazel Wright, a partner in the family law team at Hunters Solicitors said: “The law on cohabitation in this country is out of date and unsatisfactory.
“Now those who would have been outside the scope of the law to help them can seek compensation in the courts if their spouse has deliberately refused to have a civil ceremony after a religious ceremony.
“Akhtar and Khan both knew that their sharia marriage was not a legally registered marriage. It became vital for Akhtar that the English divorce court rule in her favour, that the marriage should be recognised as void, and not a non-marriage.
“Otherwise she would not have any rights to make any financial claims for herself.
“The ruling that this marriage was just like a marriage for the couple, their families and friends, and indeed it satisfied the UAE authorities, and so was a valid but void marriage has given heart to many who otherwise suffer discrimination.”