HUNDREDS of Muslim women in Bolton who have been married by the town’s Imams may not be legally wed, it has been revealed.
Only one of the borough’s mosques is registered to carry out services which are legally binding in the UK without the presence of a registrar.
Women therefore, who have been married elsewhere, but have not had a registrar present or a separate civil ceremony, may not in fact be married.
Nick Lewis, a marital law expert at Bolton-based KBL Solicitors, said he had been consulted “on a number of occasions” by Muslim women who were seeking a divorce.
He added: “They have been distressed to find that they have not been married at all.”
Mr Lewis said that in many cases the ceremony was conducted by an Imam (holy man) either in a mosque or elsewhere, in a traditional ceremony. The couple then signed a register which would have been kept at the mosque.
He said: “Unfortunately, the simple fact is that, unless the venue is registered for the solemnisation of marriage and the person conducting the ceremony is authorised under Civil Law to do so, there is no legal marriage. There must be a separate civil ceremony.
“This means that, for many women who had thought they were wed, the upsetting truth is that they have been deprived of the protection given to them and their children by virtue of being married.
“In these circumstances, they are not entitled to maintenance for themselves, and the court cannot make orders — save in exceptional circumstances – in respect of any property owned by them.”
Mr Lewis said the problem had been “bubbling under for several years without any successful resolution.”
A spokesman for Bolton Council told the Bolton News that non of the 18 mosques in Bolton are currently registered to solemnise marriages.
That means every marriage conducted by an Imam must be attended by a registrar, or followed by a separate civil ceremony.
A spokesman for the Registrar General’s office said mosques can apply for Certification and Registration of Religious Buildings for Worship and Marriage.
If it is granted then 12 months later the mosque can nominate a person to be authorised to legally register the marriage.
If no one is appointed then the marriage ceremony needs to be attended by a registrar to complete the marriage formalities or a separate civil ceremony at the register office needs to be held.
Cassandra Balchin, spokesman for the national pressure group Women Living Under Muslim Laws, said the problem of Muslim marriages not being legal is a growing one in the UK.
She estimates one third of women approaching Sharia councils for a religious divorce find that their marriage is not recognised under British law.
Marriages abroad, if legal in the country they take place in, are recognised as legal in Britain, but Ms Balchin says the numbers of these taking place involving British Muslims is dropping with many choosing to marry in this country.
Ms Balchin says a small number of couples actively decide just to have a religious ceremony and not involve the State for political reasons. But she believes increasing numbers of young men are deliberately avoiding making their marriages legal to ensure that, if the marriage fails their wives have less of a claim on family assets.
“Younger men have a more exploitative attitude in how they want the relationship to work,” said Ms Balchin.
She added that even educated women don’t suspect arrangements for their weddings don’t include the legal formalities. “A lot of women have absolutely no idea that their marriage is not valid. You would be surprised by how many have been duped.”
Ms Balchin is among a group of leading Muslims who are working to try and raise awareness of the problem and pressing the Government to make it easier for mosques to qualify for registration.
11:18am Friday 30th May 2008