Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin is considering whether measures against ‘Islamic marriage’ ought to be introduced. Islamic weddings in the Netherlands are generally unofficial, non-government sanctioned ceremonies based on Islamic law. Contracts in Islamic marriages are not legally recognized under Dutch law. As such, there will be no alimony if a couple divorces, and an Islamically bound spouse is not automatically eligible for inheritance if one member of the marriages dies. Labour Party politicians have repeatedly expressed concern that such religious weddings may be forced for some, and may involve polygamy. Ballin condemns the practice, and said that he is not ruling out future criminal proceedings for people who enter into Islamic marriages (without making the marriage legal under Dutch law).
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Tonight, at the City Circle, the Muslim Institute will launch a radical marriage contract (pdf) it hopes will change the face of British Muslim family life. Currently, the Islamic marriage ceremony (nikkah), performed by an imam in the presence of two witnesses, is not recognised by British law and often involves little or no paperwork. If things go awry and the couple divorce, the woman – and it is almost always the woman – experiences great difficulty securing the financial rights guaranteed to her under sharia law. The terms and conditions of this new contract, signed at the nikkah, clarify both husband and wife’s rights and obligations in all eventualities. For example, it ensures that the right to divorce (talaq-i-tafweed), is automatically delegated to the wife, something that is practised in most Muslim countries. The contract is not just about divorce, though. It seeks to establish healthy relationships by highlighting difficult scenarios the couple may encounter in the future. Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Institute explains: “By laying out the terms and conditions of the marriage it encourages both parties to establish consensus on issues such as where they will live.” Many couples bring to a marriage a certain amount of cultural baggage. They can find they have vastly differing approaches to lifestyle, such as the division of housework and personal finances. The architect of the contract, Mufti Barkatulla, has spent the past 25 years presiding over thousands of divorce cases at the Islamic Sharia Council. “Problems arise when couples don’t know what to expect. The lack of respect for each other’s personality and choices is shocking,” he says. The contract is the culmination of a four-year consultation process to address the pervasive gender inequality in Muslim marriages across the UK – inequalities based not in theology, but in culture. A major fault line is the role of in-laws. Sharia law explicitly states that a wife has the right to a separate living space, yet some Muslim communities in the UK, such as those from the subcontinent, cherish a rigid cultural attitude that living with in-laws is an Islamic convention. Polygamy is another contentious issue the new contract clarifies, illegal under British law and subject to strict conditions set down in the Qur’an. Samia Rahman reports.