By Shaheen Ali and Justin Jones
Bana Gora is Chief Executive Officer of the Muslim Women’s Council, an organization established in 2009 to represent the views of Muslim women across the UK. Her expertise is in matters of social policy and engagement with marginalized communities in particular, and at present she is involved in the MWC’s plans to build the first woman-led mosque in the UK in her home city of Bradford.
In this statement, Gora both reflects upon her local grassroots experience, and applies academic and scholarly discourse in the search for solutions. She offers a complex portrait of contemporary Muslim communities in Bradford, and by extension, the UK. On the one hand, the city is marked by the rapidly rising knowledge and assertiveness of Muslim women; but on the other, she also notes the ongoing existence of a range of cultural matrimonial practices that persist unchecked, due to “loopholes within British law.”
Gora notes a range of startling cultural practices, many of which violate the rights of women especially. These include polygamous and underage marriages; the withholding of alimony after divorce; the unequal distribution of inheritance; and instant triple-ṭalāq divorce. As a by-product of the latter, Gora even notes the existence of “nikāḥ-i-halālah rackets,” that “sell” the services of men to partake in temporary marriages, so that a divorced woman may remarry a former husband under Islamic law. The Muslim Women’s Council, she argues, encounters such issues “day by day.”
Simultaneously, however, she acknowledges that women themselves often exploit such “loopholes” for their own benefit: for instance, a woman choosing not to register her nikāḥ as a civil marriage so as to deny her “husband” the ability to make a claim upon her own personal wealth. It is not only men, then, who might seek advantage by avoiding the civil legal system when it comes to marriage.
For solutions to these problems, Gora looks not so much to civil law, but rather, argues that “perhaps the best solutions come from within the Islamic tradition itself.” She argues that Islam’s internal “richness and diversity,” the existence of multiple legal schools, and the flexibility of shari‘ah all provide the basis for the religion to provide its own solutions.
This view leads Gora to emphasise a programme of public “awareness and education,” especially with regard to knowledge of Islam’s history and traditions. For instance, in a move shared with many women’s groups across the Muslim world, the Muslim Women’s Council has organised seminars and study groups to consider gender-related questions, including the histories of Islam’s female exemplars such as Khadījah, Fāṭima, and ʿĀ’isha. By gaining insight into the importance of women in Islam’s companionate and classical era, women today can gain awareness of the space and rights that Islam has always granted them.
More striking still is her invocation of Islam’s polymorphous legal tradition to address contemporary questions. For instance, as a solution to the problem of domestic mistreatment, she notes the possibility of adding stipulations or conditions to a nikāḥ contract. As she notes, this practice has often fallen out of favour in the contemporary world, but it has a long legal pedigree and was widely adhered to in some legal eras; and so perhaps it can offer a means of providing women with marital protections today. Similarly, she proposes looking to Islam’s different legal schools, and indeed to the different legal-constitutional frameworks across Muslim Africa and Asia, to seek lessons for the handling of matrimonial practices.
There is also a call to take lessons from Muslims in other parts of Europe. At one point, she notes with some admiration the “intellect [and] academic rigour” of “home-grown” imāms in some European countries, who are trained locally and thus are thus attuned to the cultural norms of the nations in which they work. Bradford, and by extension Britain, lack such a home-grown leadership, with many imāms coming from overseas. Their remoteness from contemporary Britain implies that, for now at least, British Muslims need to look beyond their imāms to find solutions to contemporary questions, formulating responses on their own terms.
Compared to some other contributors, Gora strikes a positive tone. She notes the increasing willingness of women among the UK’s third-generation Muslims to critique and challenge normative understandings. Pushing the need for public education and a recognition of Islam’s pluralism, she makes a particular call for ordinary Muslims to take charge of the community’s future.
‘How do Muslims in Britain understand their laws and their interaction with civil laws? This depends upon the Muslims [in question], their origins, and their level of education. Many conflate shari‘ah with Islamic law, and cannot distinguish between the two. Many are told that secular civil laws are ḥarām and contradict Islam, even though Islamic law stipulates that when Muslims are a minority in a non-Muslim majority country, the law of the land must be followed. This is important and needs to be at the heart of these conversations.
Drawing from my own experiences regarding the complexities and problems that Muslim communities currently face in Islamic law […] the question here is “which Islamic law [do we mean]?” Islamic law is not a monolith and there are different legal schools, each with their own subdivisions. One example is the Deobandi school followed by many South Asian Muslims, which is an offshoot of the Ḥanafī school, but much more rigid than the original Ḥanafīs. The four Sunni schools are not in agreement about many details; for instance the Ḥanafī school, in contrast to […] the other schools, allows some flexibility with regard to obtaining the consent of the woman’s guardian. The position within the school is that the marriage of a free, sane and adult woman is valid without the approval of her guardian if the person is a suitable match for her, meaning in short that the woman can conduct the marriage herself without the need for a male guardian to do it for her. This is done in the Mālikī school where a woman cannot get married without a guardian, and in cases where no relative exists, the state provides the guardian in the form of a judge or another official.
Many Muslims believe that Islamic law needs to be followed to the letter, i.e., on the basis of texts, rather than via the spirit of the law, which results in difficulties with civil/state laws. For example, British law takes second, third, and fourth marriages to be bigamy, while Islamic law permits up to four wives. Sometimes, and this is a case that we are seeing frequently in Bradford, Islamic law is being used to circumvent British law. To put it bluntly, we are seeing on a day to day basis that [elements within] the Muslim community are finding loopholes within British law and are abusing those loopholes, especially where it is beneficial to patriarchal interpretations like marrying more than one wife, marrying underage girls, withholding alimony, or distributing inheritance unequally.
Before talking about the difficult exchanges between civil laws and Islamic laws, we should talk about the difficult exchanges between Islamic schools of law, and the fact that many Muslims do not even know which school they are following or are supposed to be following. We have had this experience quite frequently when women attend our seminars and drop-in sessions. When we ask which school they follow, [they answer] “I’m a Muslim, why do you have to ask that question?”
So what are the major changes? There is a need for recognition that what works for a village in the middle of nowhere, be it in Asia, the Middle East, or North Africa, does not necessarily work in Britain, and that women will not give up their rights willingly once they know that they have them. So second and third wives, who have no rights since they have unregistered marriages that are not recognised as valid in Britain, and cannot prove the marriage existed, with good counselling and representation have realised that they can get some kind of rights, using for example the financial rights of unmarried couples living together. But while these second wives are […] technically unmarried because they cannot prove the marriage, and so do not have the same rights as married women, a legal claim can be made depending on the circumstances. Especially in terms of things like property, if the woman has contributed towards a purchase or a mortgage or to repair of the household, or if there are children living in it […] [in all these cases] their housing needs must still be met.
The kind of cases that we are being presented with in the Muslim Women’s Council are at both ends of the spectrum. We have women coming to us who say “I have had my nikāḥ done but I don’t want to have a civil ceremony because I am the main breadwinner, the property is in my name, and I don’t want him to have a share in the property if we were to divorce.” What do women do in that situation? On the other side, we have women who phone in the office saying ‘[my husband] has just given me three ṭalāq by text, what do I do?’ They get into a panic, and what you find is that there are [consequences like] a number of online services that are charging divorced women thousands of pounds to take part in ḥalālah marriages, where they marry, have sex and then divorce a stranger so they can get back with their first husband. There is a racket out there of women being charged thousands of pounds, and then the husband blackmailing the woman afterwards. And in some cases, the [muḥallil] husbands are actually refusing to divorce the woman, so though she may want to reconcile with the first husband, she is stuck with another man. So there are lots of nuances that we need to be aware of.
What we have been doing in Bradford with our team is supporting quite proactively the “Register Our Marriage” campaign to raise awareness. People assume that we want to raise awareness just with women, but men too need to know their rights. We have had two very successful roadshows in Bradford and are planning more.
Bradford is a city where we have a large Muslim population, but this awareness is needed nationwide, and we need partners in different cities. We need imāms and scholars who want to work in partnership with us to get this awareness out there. Women are not used to questioning their positions, but things are getting better with increased awareness and education.
What we do at the Muslim Women’s Council is ask women what they do want without assuming that they want a particular speaker or a particular scholar. We ran frequent seminars with the women, and they would frequently ask to learn about inspirational female role models from Islam. So, last year, we hosted a series of seminars on the lives of Khadījah, Fāṭima, and ʿĀʾisha. The women in the audience were completely blown away by how empowered and how independent these women were in the time of the Prophet. And it took away a lot of the barriers while they were listening, thanks to the fantastic speakers.
So in terms of how to resolve some of these tensions going forward, it is straightforward, and it is about education. Women need to be informed about their rights, including the possibilities of adding stipulations or conditions to their nikāḥ contract. This is crucial, and women are simply not aware of this. I asked my own mother whether she was aware that you can put conditions into the marriage contract at the time you have your nikāḥ done, and she said, “women don’t have that right.” And that is the consensus of the first and second generations in the UK. These stipulations might range from the man not taking a second wife, to compelling a husband to give divorce upon request from the wife, or demanding that a husband must provide clothes for me twice a year, or anything in between. A dear friend of mine was researching the history of what women had stipulated hundreds of years ago in their original marriage contracts, and one of the things she found was a woman who had demanded permission to visit her parents twice a week, otherwise she will divorce him. This shows how empowered women were then, and how much we have regressed since.
Formalising separate legal spaces is not the answer, and integration might not work in all areas, but regulating Islamic laws through civil law is a possible answer, like having a direct registry in these parallel legal system courts where a marriage will be registered automatically, then and there, and then a circumvention of the British law (as in the case of a second marriage) will then not be possible.
Another suggestion is to provide a mini crash-course to women in such councils and courts, educate them about their rights starting from the marriage contract: what they can write into it, the various marriage contract possibilities and conditions of the different legal schools when it comes to this. Perhaps the best solutions come from within the Islamic tradition itself, because of its richness and diversity. Islam in North Africa is different from Islam in China, and everywhere in between, so we can actually learn from the different locations and their legal-constitutional frameworks. So for example, in Tunisia, a Muslim woman is now able to marry a non-Muslim legally, and they are working on the inheritance laws there, while in Saudi Arabia, women have only just acquired the right to drive.
In seven European countries—Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria—there are institutes that produce their own homegrown imāms, and this is something that we should consider. I have just returned from Sarajevo, and was completely awed by the youthfulness of the imāms there: the intellect, the academic rigour, and it shows what is amiss in the UK, where imāms have been [mostly] imported. In or around Bradford, we have around 110 mosques, and of those, in about 60 or 70 or more, we have imāms who do not speak English fluently. Therefore, how can they talk to young people who come into the mosque who want to communicate in a particular language?
So, we do have a lot of issues within the Muslim community, but also, the solutions lie within the Muslim community.’