On 28 January 2021 One Law for All and Southall Black Sisters organised a webinar on marriage law in the UK and the need for changes to give minority women justice. It took place against the backdrop of the Law Commission’s review of marriage laws in the UK.
Speakers: One Law for All Co-Spokesperson Gita Sahgal, Southall Black Sisters Director Pragna Patel, Survivor of domestic abuse and a religious-only marriage Uzma and Women’s Rights Campaigner Yasmin Rehman. There will be a video message from Yehudis Fletcher. The webinar was chaired by One Law for All Co-Spokesperson Maryam Namazie.
It discussed how the law as it stands does not recognise the experiences of many minority women who are abused, deceived or coerced into having religious marriages only. It also called for a law that requires all religious marriages to be registered and for a religious marriage to be deemed void where women are coerced, deceived or threatened into only having a religious marriage. See the full discussion below.
A recent Court of Appeal case rightly decided that English courts should not recognise religious marriages, however, by refusing to consider such marriages as void, the Court prevented minority women from gaining much needed access to legal remedies.
This is a profoundly discriminatory outcome for minority, especially Muslim women. Christian women in a similar situation are able to have their marriages declared ‘void’, and thus have access to financial remedies from the courts, but women who have married in other religious systems, do not have the same access. Unregistered marriages also have other harmful consequences; they have led to a rise in polygamy and violence against women.
Alarmingly, it also makes women dependent on profoundly discriminatory and misogynistic religious arbitration forums for a resolution in the event of a marriage breakdown even though such forums work against women’s rights and expose them to the risk of further abuse.
This makes changes in marriage law essential in order to stop women being locked in abuse and denied access to justice. It is vital that we end such discrimination and uphold the principle of gender equality.
BIOGRAPHIES OF SPEAKERS
Gita Sahgal is a writer, journalist, film-maker and rights activist. She is currently Co-Spokesperson of One Law for All and Founder of Centre for Secular Space. She was formerly Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International; she was suspended in 2010 after she was quoted criticising Amnesty for its high-profile associations with the Islamist Moazzam Begg, the director of a group called Cageprisoners. For many years she served on the board of Southall Black Sisters and was a founder of Women Against Fundamentalism and Awaaz: South Asia Watch. With Nira Yival Davis, she edited “Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain” (London, 1992). Among her articles are “Legislating Utopia? Violence Against Women, Identities and Interventions” in “The Situated Politics of Belonging”. During the 1980s, she worked for a Black current affairs programme called “Bandung File” on Channel 4 TV. She made two films about the Rushdie affair, “Hullaballoo Over Satanic Verses” and “Struggle or Submission”. She has also made two programmes for Dispatches Channel 4, “The Provoked Wife” on the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia and “The War Crimes File”, an investigation into allegations of war crimes, committed by members of the Jamaat i Islami in Bangladesh in 1971.
Maryam Namazie is Co-Spokesperson for One Law for All, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Fitnah. She is on the International Advisory Board of the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom; National Secular Society Honorary Associate;, amongst others.The Islamic regime of Iran’s media outlets has called Namazie immoral and corrupt and did an ‘exposé’ on her entitled “Meet this anti-religion woman.” Maryam was a character in DV8 Physical Theatre’s Can We Talk About This?, which deals with freedom of speech, censorship and Islam. She was awarded the 2017 Henry H. Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism award; 2016 International Secularism (Laicite) Prize from the Comité Laïcité République and was honoured by the National Secular Society for her campaigning work defending free speech at universities (2016) despite attempts at barring her by Student Unions or Islamic Society efforts to intimidate her and cancel her talks. She was also awarded Atheist of the Year by Kazimierz Lyszczynski (2014); Journalist of the Year at the Dods Women in Public Life Awards (2013); selected one of the top 45 women of the year by Elle magazine Quebec (2007); one of 2006′s most intriguing people by DNA, awarded the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year Award (2005), amongst others.
Pragna Patel is Founder and Director of the Southall Black Sisters. SBS is, a multi-award-winning women’s organisation founded in 1979 to address the needs of black and minority women experiencing gender violence. It successfully campaigned for the release of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a landmark case in which an Asian woman was convicted of the murder of her violent husband. The case reformed homicide law, creating greater awareness within and outside minority communities. Pragna has been in the forefront of many other SBS’ milestone cases and campaigns on domestic violence, legal aid, immigration and religious fundamentalism which includes mounting successful legal challenges against the practice of gender segregation in schools and universities and the accommodation of ‘Sharia’ codes within the legal system. She is also a co-founder of Women Against Fundamentalism. She has also written extensively on race, gender and religion, including “Faith in the State? Asian Women’s Struggles for Human Rights in the UK”, and “Shrinking Secular Spaces: Asian Women at the Intersect of Race, Religion and Gender”. She was listed in The Guardian’s Top 100 women: activists and campaigners.
Uzma is a survivor of domestic abuse and a religious-only marriage.
Yasmin Rehman is a freelance consultant and doctoral candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her area of research is polygamy and the law. She has worked for more than 20 years predominantly on violence against women, race, faith and gender, and human rights. Yasmin has worked for Local Government, the Metropolitan Police Service as Director of Partnerships and Diversity (2004-08) during which time she also held the Deputy national lead for forced marriage and honour based violence. Yasmin has most recently been commissioned as founding CEO of a race equality charity in East London, followed by Transforming Rehabilitation bid and now reviewing police responses to domestic abuse for national charities. Yasmin is currently member of the Board of EVAW (End Violence Against Women Coalition), an Independent Adviser for City of London Police and a member of the Centre for Secular Space.
Yehudis Fletcher is a social and political activist. She is an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser at Migdal Emunah and the founder of Nahamu, a think tank combatting extremism in the Jewish community. She is a student of social policy at Salford University.