Does Channel 4’s Documentary Provide the Truth about Muslim Marriage?

Channel 4’s documentary, The Truth About Muslim Marriage, presented by Dr. Myriam François-Cerrah of the School of Oriental and African Studies, rests on doubtful claims. The documentary, first shown on 21 November 2017, portrays the phenomenon of unregistered marriage among Muslims as a problem of much greater magnitude than it is. In addition to this, it argues for legal change on a rather weak foundation. A closer look at the claims put forth in this documentary helps to reassess whether they are well founded and, indeed, whether other agendas are at play.

The documentary presents some results of a survey involving 901 Muslim women on their experiences in getting married and the procedures they have gone through, or intend to go through, to do that. At the documentary’s core is the question whether these women did or would register their marriage in addition to having a Muslim marriage ceremony (nikah). The survey solicited further information, especially with regards to divorce patterns, which may well produce important findings that are yet to be announced. As screened by Channel 4, the documentary restricts itself to covering the phenomenon of unregistered Muslim marriages that are not valid under English law.

Solicitor Aina Khan, a central figure in the film, is protagonist in a campaign to encourage marriage registration and to work towards a change in the law. In some ways, Aina Khan and the campaigners associated with her are trying to counter the prevalence of a growing number of sharia councils issuing Muslim divorces, including for those without registered marriages. Even though these sharia councils have been linked to problematic practices and to patriarchy, Muslim women still resort to them because they issue Islamic divorces.

A quest to orient the ways in which Muslim marriage is contracted and unmade is at play within Britain’s Muslim community and, more specifically, among the actors that anthropologist Prof. Ralph Grillo collectively identifies as “Muslims, Islam and the Law: A Legal Industry” (MILLI). Few in this legal industry assume a disinterested distance, and figures like Aina Khan clearly benefit by being profiled as steering and asserting control over the field of Muslim marriage making and unmaking. In Sufiya Ahmed’s article in The Independent, we learn that Aina Khan’s Islamic Department throws in a free Islamic divorce if a civil one has been obtained. (Since Ralph Grillo includes me in his MILLI group, readers will have to decide for themselves where my own interests lie.)

The film begins by portraying a marriage ceremony between two British Pakistanis, with Ajmal Masroor, the Bangladeshi-born British imam, broadcaster, and politician, conducting the necessary offer and acceptance procedure “according to Islam.” According to Ajmal Masroor, marriage “is a partnership of two equals.” It is difficult to square his view of Muslim marriage with the respective rights and obligations of the parties according to various schools of sharia.

According to the sharia, marriage is not a partnership of equals, and rules as to divorce, custody of children, rights of the surviving spouse to property, and polygamy, seemingly popular among British Muslim men, all place women at a different level to men. Muslim women are forbidden from marrying non-Muslim men, whereas Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women. Similarly, courts in contemporary societies where Islamic law is part of the official system observe these same rules, although in some instances mitigating their severest consequences.

Recent British evidence has exposed Islamic school books containing images depicting wives as having to be submissive to their husbands, not being allowed to refuse sex to their husbands, not being able to leave the house without permission, and permitting husbands to correct their wives by beating them. Unfortunately, though, Ajmal Masroor’s description remains uncontested for the remainder of the documentary.

Of the women surveyed, 60% were in religious-only marriages, which presumably means that 40% were not. In other words, of the 901 Muslim women surveyed, some 360 had no demonstrated objection to taking steps to register their marriages either before or after their Muslim marriage ceremony. In a summary prepared by Dr. Rajnaara Akhtar, Senior Lecturer at Leicester De Montfort University Law School, the survey results are presented as though the 60% figure is the “key finding.” This message comes through loud and clear in the documentary too.

In some sense, this is justified, because it provides one answer to the continuing speculation within MILLI about the real figure of unregistered Muslim marriages. For some time now, assessments about the palpable tendency among Muslims in Britain not to register their marriages were only “guesstimates,” unsubstantiated by reliable figures. Although the survey will not finally settle the matter, and some question the suitability of its methodology, it does provide a more reliable measure of the situation than we have had so far.

But breaking this 60% figure down further reveals that there is no clear reason why it should be regarded as the “key finding” except for the obvious fact that such marriages are not valid according to English law. In the Channel 4 survey, of those in religious-only marriages, a majority of 66%, or around 356 of the total 901 women surveyed, knew their marriage had no legal standing in English law. This reduces the strength of what is presented as the “key finding,” if only because a majority of the unregistered find themselves in it because of a conscious decision not to register, knowing that their decision would entail their marriage having no validity in English law. Of these, we are told that around half did not plan to follow their religious marriages with a civil marriage.

Many questions remain to be asked about the design of the survey questionnaire. As with existing studies of Muslim marriage and divorce that we know, this one too fails to survey men. The documentary’s survey reinforces the impression of other studies, despite all their talk about power and patriarchy, that men are unimportant in decisions about marriage and it only matters how women view marriage. But Muslim men’s shadowy presence lurks somewhere, making the rules, officiating as imams, giving fatwas, sitting on sharia councils, and, of course, divorcing irresponsibly.

The survey’s question, “Why do or did you plan not to have a civil marriage?” is an important one. But the prompted answers are not altogether satisfactory. Respondents are given the following suggestions: 1) Happy the way we are; 2) Husband doesn’t want to; 3) Family don’t want us to; 4) Think the Islamic marriage part is most important; 5) Don’t want to have to share assets if we divorce; 6) Other. Obviously, since the suggested answers are not mutually exclusive, more than one response might be suitable, although we aren’t told whether this was explained to the respondent women, and whether and how the responses overlap, if they do.

Neither Dr. Akhtar’s summary nor the screened documentary therefore makes clear what kinds of responses were actually given. The summary merely says that of those who consciously remained unregistered, “the majority felt the religious ceremony was the most important, or said they were happy the way they were.” Given that a central concern of the survey, and the sole concern of the documentary, was to do with reasons why people do not register their marriages, the quality of the suggested answers, the relationship between them (for instance whether they are mutually exclusive or cumulative), and the analysis and presentation of the answers is disappointing. It would have helped had further questioning followed the answers. It would also have been interesting, for instance, to find out whether existing or intended claims to social welfare benefits prevented couples from presenting as officially married. Other survey material has shown, for instance, that the number of single-parent households is higher than average among Muslims. But we have to wait for a more directed survey that is prepared to ask such potentially sensitive questions.

Of the 60% who had not registered or did not intend to do so, 28% were unaware that a nikah is not recognised by English law. This figure is not a proportion of the total number of Muslim marriages, but of those who did not register. The impression thereby given is that more than a quarter of women were not aware of the legal position. Another way of putting the matter, however, shows how potentially misleading presenting this figure is. As a comparison, one would not want to say that, of the roughly 17% of British families with unmarried cohabiting couples, all those in that group are somehow a problem for public policy, as long as we bear in mind that not marrying is a conscious choice for many. This is not to deny that problems come up in courts, as they do with unregistered Muslim marriages, or that solutions for legislative reform might well be advocated.

Of the total 901 women surveyed, something like 152 had not registered their marriages while being unaware that their nikah was not valid under the official English law. In percentage terms, this amounts to something like 16-17% of the total number of women surveyed not being aware that their unregistered marriage was not valid under English law. This is far less impressive than the 28% figure, which is the percentage of the women who had a religious-only marriage.

Neither are we presented with clear information as to how many of the 16-17%, or 152 of 901 women, would have chosen to register their marriage once they came to know that their marriages were not recognised in English law. Would they all have decided to register or would their decisions mirror (or even outdo) those who are in the category of the consciously registration-averse couples? Does the existence of 16-17% of Muslim women not taking advantage of a legal option to register out of their own ignorance provide good grounds for a change in the law? The cases in which mainly Muslim women have asked English courts to recognize their unregistered marriage have only very rarely been successful, with the courts drawing a tight boundary around those that merit recognition.

Other immaterial information is used to inflate the impression of a problem. With reference to the unregistered-while-ignorant, we are told by Dr. Akhtar that “religious marriages are often celebrated at considerable financial cost to the couple and their families; and with all the pomp, grandeur and ceremony we have come to expect of most wedding celebrations.” Well, yes, but any of the different groups represented in the survey may celebrate with expense and pomp, not only those who were unaware of the invalidity of the nikah under English law. Neither is it plausible that such pomp and expenditure is necessarily calibrated for the purpose of ensuring official legal validity; it may be just a way of demonstrating one’s status and means in front of the larger community. Furthermore, citing the expense of weddings contradicts the claim made in the documentary that the expense of registering (and divorcing) is a prohibitive factor. (Oddly, the expense of divorcing is not asked about in the survey, although it pops up in the documentary itself.) Is the question of pomp and expenditure really a problem for public policy or merely a rhetorical embellishment of a weak case?

Although no non-Muslims were surveyed, the documentary cites a singular case that it says is a “Hindu” unregistered marriage. In fact, it also says the marriage was a Hindu-Sikh one. The documentary uses the single instance of the “Hindu” marriage to justify the claim that unregistered marriage is not a Muslim-only problem. Well, if that is so, the makers of the film certainly do not make any effort to ascertain through their survey to what extent, if at all, there exists a problem among Hindus of the type they have diagnosed for Muslims. In fact, the choice to survey only Muslim women must have been deliberate because Muslims regularly present as unregistered. Besides, Hindus tend to be rather good at ensuring their community centres are recognised as approved premises, and performing a dual ritual and official marriage ceremony (or ceremonies) is a routinely practiced custom. Although it is not completely unheard of for Hindu marriages to be unregistered, all the experts who know something about the field accept that they are the exception rather than anything resembling the norm. In research conducted for his doctorate, Dr. Vishal Vora, of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany, confirms that British Muslim non-registration is a unique case without parallel for any other group subject to the same formal legal regime.

The way in which the documentary brings in Hindu marriages to justify its case for legal change to make unregistered marriages official is not an unusual way of insidiously using Hindus to mollify protests that Muslims are unreasonably asking for concessions from the English legal system. An earlier report on Minority Legal Orders, written by Prof. Maleiha Malik for the British Academy due to the controversy that still rages about sharia councils, expands the discussion in a not dissimilar fashion. The report says, “Hindu and Sikh communities also have normative social regulation that requires internal consultation, interpretation, and decision-making.” It then mentions the existence of an online advisory service, “Ask the Pundi”’ of the Hindu Council, to support the claim, but proffers no evidence of its actual use. It is impossible that such a service has a relationship of similarity to the kinds of activities that sharia councils engage in.

While sharia councils continue to be a matter of public concern, no research or other coverage has taken on the online advisory service Prof. Malik considered a relevant comparison. Other similar attempts at deflection are not hard to come by. Note the preference for the use of the term “Asian” or “South Asian” when predominantly Muslim grooming gangs are discussed, while a Muslim imam carrying out an act of civility somehow seems a noteworthy event unaccompanied by charges of “exceptionalizing Muslims.”

The Channel 4 documentary evidently pushes the claim that legal change needs to occur owing to the practice of unregistered Muslim marriages. The documentary cites the Marriage Act allowing Jews, Quakers and Anglicans to have their religious ceremonies recognized as valid under English law. For Jews, this is only because there is an inbuilt official registration process. So the comparison cannot be pushed beyond a certain degree. For Muslims, therefore, the option is to get married in an approved mosque or other building (many hotels, stately homes, and other venues have such approval) and ensure registration. Regardless, the documentary is used as an opportunity to advocate legal reform to ensure registration.

The documentary’s presenter, Dr. Myriam François-Cerrah, however, gives mixed signals about its intent. Upon being told on Twitter that: “No law needs to be updated re muslim marriage. Muslims need to get educated on validity of Islamic laws within other legal frameworks.” She responds: “yes i dont think anyone saying otherwise!”

One option is that imams be given the power to act as celebrants without the current restrictions that tie registration to a building that is approved for official marriages. The merit of this proposal is that it attempts to match the current practice of Muslims celebrating marriages in banqueting suites (which may or may not be approved buildings) or even at home. The survey summary and documentary inform us that only 1 in 10 mosques in England and Wales are registered to conduct marriages. While 31% of those surveyed had married within a mosque, of these, only 3.6% (some 10 respondents) had a dual civil ceremony at the same time. This not only points to mosques being a less favored venue for entering a registered marriage but also indicates that, despite a significant portion of nikahs taking place at mosques, their governing bodies seem disinterested equipping themselves to register marriages in English law. Despite celebrity imams like Ajmal Masroor saying that they always encourage registration, most imams and mosque functionaries evidently do not take it seriously. The survey confirms this through its finding that only 12% of the women reported that the imam advised them how to have their marriage registered. 

Further questions must be addressed also. Even if the process of conducting registrations is disengaged from the venues of celebration, current practice suggests that it is far from likely that imams will take the option of being future celebrants seriously enough to make a significant difference to Muslim marriage practices. And what happens when they realize that in any future relaxed law on celebrants they are obliged to register gay marriages? They might refuse to do so but then they could be hauled to the courts in discrimination claims. Furthermore, even if the required number of imams is available, will those Muslim couples getting married necessarily be bothered to ensure that they employ the services of such an imam? If the documentary’s survey is anything to go by, most Muslim couples will not want to do that, and it is far from certain that the survey’s 16-17% group, who are anyway ignorant of English law, will do that either. The under 25s, who are even less prone to register due to the non-public nature of their relationships, are commensurately less likely to take up the option. Although inevitably raised by the thrust towards the kind of law reform advocated, these are questions that the documentary makers fail to confront.

The documentary also misrepresents Islamic laws applicable abroad. Solicitor Aina Khan can be seen speaking approvingly of the Pakistani laws on marriage. Specifically, she cites the provision of the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, which penalizes imams for not registering the marriages they conduct. Well, the example would have been convincing if it could be shown that imams are ever prosecuted under such a law. The attempt by Dr. Myriam François to cite the law of her native France as exemplary on the ground that it mandates civil registration before any religious ceremony is also unpersuasive because it is rare, if not unheard of, for any religious functionary to be prosecuted under such a provision.

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Dr. Myriam François-Cerrah

Pakistani law recognizes unregistered marriages despite its well-intentioned provision on registration, which is routinely ignored by Pakistan’s judges, who are fairly comfortable with interpreting Muslim family law according to classical Islamic law tenets rather than the modernistic reforms of the 1960s. Polygamy is not judicially disapproved, and extra-judicial talaq divorces are regularly upheld, all despite the ostensibly contrary provisions of the Ordinance. So the parallel with Pakistan cannot be drawn without some dissimulation.

In her article published the day before the documentary was screened, Sufiya Ahmed quotes Aina Khan as saying: “The Marriage Act 1949 must be updated to require all faiths to register their marriages. This would mean Muslims must register religious ceremonies under civil law, just like they do in every Muslim country.” In concluding her article, Sufiya Ahmed takes this hyperbole one step further: “It’s not often we can say that British Muslim women’s rights should match those of the women in Muslim countries.” The legislation of many “Muslim countries” does impose a requirement of marriage registration, but for these claims to be persuasive, the documentary makers would have needed to substantiate their mandatory nature by providing evidence of non-recognition of the validity of those marriages that are not so registered. As the Pakistani evidence already indicates, it is far from certain that women always register their marriages under such laws. Furthermore, in countries that apply Islamic family law, Muslim women enter into Islamic marriages, which means that an interpretation of sharia governs their marriage and divorce in the official legal system. Do these proponents really advocate emulating these “Muslim countries” in so far as the “rights of Muslim women” are concerned?

Notwithstanding the rather weak case the survey and documentary make, and despite the problems involved with any legal change, and regardless of the probable lack of compliance if enacted, the documentary makers evince few doubts about their claims. Instead, we get a sensational presentation of an alleged problem with quick-fix solutions that probably won’t work. The documentary thus manages to portray Muslims as if they make unreasonable demands on the state and legal system and as a group that seeks changes in the law to compensate for their own ignorance. If the aim was to “get a conversation going,” a cliché that often justifies the antics of campaigners and filmmakers seeking their spot in the sunshine, then one may regard the documentary a success. If the aim was to identify a real problem and provide a substantiated case to seek solutions to it, one won’t find in it the truth about Muslim marriage.

Prakash Shah

Dr. Prakash Shah is a Reader in Culture and Law in the Department of Law, Queen Mary, University of London

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Prakash Shah

Dr. Prakash Shah is a Reader in Culture and Law in the Department of Law, Queen Mary, University of London

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