Sarah Snow, a Partner in the firm’s London office, appeared on BBC Radio London over the weekend to speak with presenters Sunny and Shay Grewal about the difficulty of divorce.
Sarah was asked about the difficulties that Muslim women face when seeking a divorce, particularly those from a South Asian background. Staying in an abusive relationship is not uncommon due to divorce being seen as a shameful act within the community. However, Sunny and Shay asked listeners whether it is an issue among Muslim women or whether it is a problem among Asian women and men regardless of religious faith.
Sarah was joined by Polly Harrar, founder of the charity Sharan Project and Safeera Sarjoo, Editor and Lifestyle Blogger.
Transcript from Sarah Snow’s interview on BBC Radio London
Sunny: Sunny Grewal
SG: Shay Grewal
SS: Sarah Snow
SNS: Safeera Nadia Sarjoo
PH: Polly Harrar
SG: Joining us in the studio tonight to give us their perspective, we have got Sarah Snow who is Partner at Stowe Family Law. We are also joined by Polly Harrar, founder of the Sharan Project and Safeera Nadia Sarjoo Editor and Lifestyle Blogger of Habibi Lifestyle Magazine. Lovely to have you all here, ladies thank you for coming in. I have to ask firstly, who is married? Who is single? Who is not? Shall we start with yourself, Polly?
PH: Not married.
SG: Not married, and yourself (Safeera)?
SG: And what about yourself, Sarah?
SS: Very much single.
SG: Okay, so these are going to be some interesting perspectives from all of you. I guess we should get your perspective on this firstly, Safeera. What do you think, is it women from all backgrounds who are dealing with this stigma when it comes to divorce or it specifically Muslim women?
SNS: I think South Asian women in general. I think that there is an element of gender to consider as well. I think that the stigma itself and the role of the community within the Asian community as well is quite a negative thing. I feel like the idea of this sort of community should be abolished in a way as it’s not doing women many favours in the community.
Sunny: What about the relationship itself. Some people might say that because of this pressure of the relationship, people don’t just walk out of their marriage because someone didn’t do the dishes. So isn’t that a positive thing that when we got married, it wasn’t just me and you who got married, it was the two families who got married, the extended friends or families that came a celebrated and they are invested in the happiness of that as much as the two partners are. So, as a result, there are some positives in that community as negatives, wouldn’t you agree?
SNS: I do agree but at the same time I feel that if a community is going to abandon you or stigmatise you just because you are getting a divorce, then that is a community that I wouldn’t want to be a part of. I do think that we pay a lot of attention to the idea of pleasing other people, rather than taking care of ourselves and I think that South Asian women feel that pressure even more so.
SG: Polly what’s your perspective on this?
PH: Really interesting line around the community and you’re right, when you get married it’s marriage of the families, marriage of the communities and actually, what we forget is that it is an investment of all those people, in particularly both families. When a woman files for a divorce, it is almost as though she is de-investing in that community and in those connections.
Sunny: She is almost turning her back on that whole union and everything, and also the whole community that were witness to that.
PH: But what I would say is, when a man files for a divorce, it is like “it is okay, it will work out, we’ll get you another wife”, but when a woman files for a divorce, suddenly there is an issue “but we paid all this for the wedding, we invested in you as an individual and you as a family”. The man doesn’t seem to get the same pressures or stigma or taboo attached to that.
Sunny: That is not only a community thing but that sort of thought process just doesn’t come to the South Asian community, it is a gender things across the world. When a man has more than one girlfriend or had an affair, it is like “good on you, lad good on you”, but when a woman does it, she is being called all names. Therefore, it is a gender thing and the way that we treat women in general.
PH: Underlying any harmful practices it is going to be a gender issue. Whether we look within the South Asian community or within general society, it comes to gender. If there is harmful behaviour, if one person is deeply unhappy or is being mistreated in any way and they say “I want to get out”, if everyone else is preventing her from doing so, they are actually complicit in that. In a sense of, it’s not about what everybody else thinks, it should be what’s in the best interest of that person. But you are right. When a man behaves badly, it is seen as he is just being a man but when a woman behaves badly, and women do have affairs and do makes mistakes, it is seen as she has put shame on the family. The honour code kicks in and therefore the self-pleasing and there’s just an imbalance generally but even more so in a community like this.
SG: Sarah, if we were going to focus and bring it back and focus particularly on the Muslim women in terms of this report, can you tell us about the legal problems about trying to be divorced from an Islamic marriage. How does that work, you probably have more understanding of how that works that we will?
SS: Yes, of course. Well, the first thing that we would really need to establish would be whether the Islamic marriage was actually registered in the UK under the law of England and Wales because if it is not a registered marriage with the marriage act, then the parties will not have access to a wide range of remedies to which the courts of England and Wales. That could really prejudice a woman in particular from seeking a number of financial remedies including property, somewhere to live, maintenance, so that so that is really a big issue and we find that a number of women will come to us with Islamic marriages that aren’t actually registered.
SG: So this is quite common then with your law firm? This is something that you actually see quite a lot and just to get an understanding, are these British couples as well? How does that work because we do know in the South Asian community there will be a lot of individuals who will go abroad, get married and then their brides will come to this country and that happens, a lot of them are happily married and that is fine. Is that something that you are coming across as well?
SS: Yes, it does include British couples, certainly. What we find is a common misconception about common law man and wife. So, people will have an Islamic marriage and wrongly believe that they have entitlements, even if it is not registered because they are living as common law man and wife; that is really not the case. So it really does impede your access to financial justice really.
SG: What piece of advice would you give to someone tuning in right now? If they are not happy, they have been in a marriage in accordance to Islam and their faith but they are not registered, what do they do? As opposed to requesting a divorce do they first need to get registered, how does that work?
SS: No, obviously if they are coming to us for advice, it may well be at the stage where they are already seeking a divorce so registry would not necessarily be appropriate at that stage. There are other remedies available, there are other acts out there but it is pretty much a piecemeal, it doesn’t come under the realms of the Matrimonial Causes Act. There is Schedule 1 of the Children Act where you can seek maintenance or housing for a child during its minority, you might also have certain remedies in civil law. For example, some of the marriage contracts, the Nikah will have certain clauses in it sometimes if it is properly drafted, which might entitle the wife to certain financial benefits upon divorce. Although that wouldn’t necessarily be recognised by the divorce courts, it might be recognised in civil court so you could potentially sue for breach of contract. These are very expensive and protracted proceedings and obviously, it would be far more suitable and sensible if it was registered.
SG: From your perspective, let’s talk to yourself on this, Safeera. You have a lifestyle magazine, you’re obviously a blogger, do you have a lot of Muslim women get in contact with you who are coming across these problems that Polly was talking about? You know, it’s the societal pressure and they end up staying in these abusive marriages or are there a lot of women who are saying no, enough is enough and they want to get divorced and their families are not letting them. What’s been your experience?
SNS: A bit of both really. I have come across women who have been sort of bold enough to walk away and they have been left in the cold by their community, from their whole families and their communities but they’re actually happier for it. That’s why in that sense I always encourage them to think about number one. There are those who are scared to leave and possibly it is a fear of the unknown as well, so I get a bit of both and try and help as much as I can.
SG: What’s your take on it, Polly? With the charity, the Sharan Project obviously you come across women from all walks of life, how does it feel for you and you come across these women?
PH: Divorce, whether it’s Islamic divorce or UK matrimonial law divorce is something that we come across quite often throughout most of our cases. When somebody leaves home and she files for divorce, even if she files for a divorce under UK law, she may still be recognised in the eyes of Islam if she doesn’t get a divorce Islamically so there are parallel barriers that she faces and, again issues that come up around divorce could be things such as dowry, could be things such as child custody and again, having dual rule or guidance, we find it very difficult. Generally, women who do try to get a divorce and who do try to move away, even though they rebuild and restart, they still have the stigma attached as being a divorcee and when they look to remarry, that is something that they take with them. Unfortunately, the same doesn’t apply to men.
Listen to Sarah’s full interview here (interview starts at 18:10)