Polygamy is being practised on an “enormous” scale within the British Muslim community without any official attempt to stop it.
A new study of the lives of Muslim women concludes that large numbers are being denied basic legal rights by being trapped in religiously sanctioned “marriages” which are not recognised in British law.
In some cases the women, often born abroad and brought to the UK for arranged marriages, are unaware about their true status for years on end.
The findings come from a study being presented to the House of Lords by the peer Baroness Cox, who has spearheaded attempt to impose new regulations on informal sharia courts.
Aurat, a Muslim women’s rights group based in the West Midlands, interviewed a sample of 50 women about their personal situations. Nine in 10 of the women described themselves as married but only one in 10 were in marriages recognised under English law having been formalised through a civil wedding or a ceremony in a Mosque registered for the purpose.
Many of the others had undergone a “Nikah” or marriage ceremony in their own home, often unaware that it lacked legal recognition.
Overall two thirds of those who identified as being “married” said that their husband had more than one wife and some had as many as four “wives”.
But in some cases the women had not initially been aware of other wives, who live in separate houses.
One 32-year-old woman, given the name Ezzah in the report – although not her real name – told the researchers: “I found out afterwards that he had three more wives and he is still married to them.
“He lives with me but refuses to pay for anything. I live in his house that he bought but I claim benefits on it to pay his mortgage.”
Another, called “Asifa”, now aged 47, told how she had attempted to divorce her husband only to discover she was not properly married.
“I went to a lawyer who told me I had no legal rights as I’m seen as a girlfriend and not a wife. I just sat there in shock,” she said.
Baroness Cox said: “You can’t extrapolate straight from this but you can make a reasonable assumption that if this is not unrepresentative, this is clearly very widespread, and we are therefore dealing with enormous numbers.
“The implications for the women are very serious and it violates the fundamental principles of our country that bigamy is illegal and yet polygamy is condoned and allowed to flourish.
“It is just continuing without any comment or expression of concern but for the women it causes concern and they are suffering.
“But these are very closed communities and it is very hard to ascertain the exact extent to which this is happening.
“In some communities women … find great pressure not to speak out and bring shame on the community.”
Lady Cox last year tabled a private member’s bill to regulate unofficial sharia courts which she said compound the pressure on women in some communities.
“Our suffragettes paid a very high price for women to have their freedom and have their rights and if they saw what some of the Muslim women are suffering in this country they would turn in their graves,” she said.
“It is putting the clock right back and anyone who is concerned about women’s rights and our freedoms in this country should be deeply concerned by the predicament of these women.
“The gap between the de jure situation where everyone has access to the law and the de facto situation in this country is a chasm.”