Vows that bind?

01 December 2017


THE Truth About Muslim Marriage (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week) uncovered an acute contemporary British problem: the niqah, the Is­­lamic wedding ceremony.

Properly conducted by an imam, it contains all the elements of willing assent, mutual agreement, and written contract that one would expect; and most Muslim women assume that it counts as legal. In UK law, however, it does not; and, if things go wrong, they discover, to their distress, that how­ever long they have shared a home, and brought up children together, they are classed merely as co-habitees.

They cannot be legally divorced, because they have not been legally married. Even many who fully under­stand the situation put off the  regis­ter-office wedding needed to for­mal­ise their union because it seems dis­respectful to their faith.

The programme could not decide, however, how things ought to change. The deeper it dug into the problem, the greater the complexities thrown up. In a culture where even holding hands is forbidden, some women find that the easy niqah, and no-fault divorce, offer them a legitimate way to have a boyfriend (and, as one bold commentator admitted, sex).

If every niqah counts as a legal marriage, then what about the women in polygamous relationships? The problem lies with the Church of Eng­land. Our marriage laws, this docu­men­­tary averred, are still essentially framed around the adamantine rock of Establishment; every other religion and atheism revolves around our position. Given some of the wishy-washy reform proposals, I am in­­clined to think that this might be a good thing.

Extreme Wives With Kate Humble (BBC2, Friday) depicted the matrilin­eal Khasi society, in remote north-east India, where women are in charge, and pass on their surnames and property to their daughters. The chief position in each generation is taken by the youngest daughter, and every­one, including the men, in the vil­lages, thought it an excellent way of life.

But, in the nearest town, a sort of Men’s Liberation Front is fighting for male empowerment. Some of the women are chafing at having all the responsibility thrust on them, and look forward to a more equal part­nership.

If you want to find women in posi­tions of true leadership, look no fur­ther than BBC4 Saturday-night cop eurodramas: there must be something about the subtitles that emits a power­ful pheromone. In the current Wit­nesses: A frozen death, Lt. Sandra Winckler is in charge, and runs rings round the men, noticing clues that they miss, making inspired connec­tions, and empathising with the most intractable witnesses.

Being French, she is, of course, extremely sexy, and not above the odd one-night stand. But, as is essential throughout this genre, her home life is messed up; and her professional ex­­pertise is undermined by the aliena­tion of her disaffected child, and her anger with her ex-husband.

True liberation is clearly — even in the birthplace of La Revolution — still some way off.

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