Today, Britain's Muslim Institute unveiled a "revolutionary" marriage contract that is meant to defend women's equal rights. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, director of the Muslim Institute, said "nothing like this has happened in 100 years" and called the document "a challenge to various sharia councils who don't believe in gender equality."
British law does not recognize Islamic marriage ceremonies (nikkah), so unless a couple also has a civil ceremony, divorce often leaves Muslim women without legal recourse. The new marriage contract (PDF) -- which took four years to draft -- encourages couples to obtain a civil marriage and provides proof of the Islamic marriage. It defends a woman's right to initiate divorce, outlaws polygamy and makes it optional for a woman to obtain the consent of a guardian before marrying. The Guardian's Samia Rahman explains that parents can no longer "prevent their daughter marrying against their wishes."
In addition to these ceremonial requirements, the contract sets out "mutual rights and obligations" during the marriage -- most notably, "emotional and sexual gratification." Verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse by either partner is explicitly forbidden.
The document is endorsed by M.P. Ann Cryer and Britain's leading Muslim organizations. But that's not to say that the contract has been embraced by all. Barrister Neil Addison says that "with government members approving it, it gives pseudo-legitimacy to Islamic marriage and to shariah by the back door, without giving any real reason why this contract is necessary." In other words: If you marry under British law, there's no need for additional marital protections.
But it seems to me that this egalitarian, community-led charge allows Islamic marriage to complement, rather than conflict with, civil marriage. As for the argument that it discourages civil marriage, Rahman notes that "if more mosques apply to become sites registered for the solemnization of marriage" -- as the document encourages -- "Muslim couples will be able to make their civil ceremony coincide with the nikkah."