Polygamy in Islam: The women victims of multiple marriage

A Pakistani bride
Muslim groups say there is still a cultural pressure for South Asian women victims of polygamy to "accept this is their lot"

When Dr Zabina Shahian married Pervez Choudhry she thought he would be the man with whom she would settle down for the rest of her life and start a family.

But she did not know the former Conservative party leader on Slough Borough Council was still married.

Choudhry, 54, who claimed he did not realise the marriage in Pakistan was legally valid in the UK, was given a community order after admitting bigamy.

A "devastated" Dr Shahian now wants to help other women who are victims of polygamous marriages - a practice a leading family lawyer says is "rife" within the British Muslim community.

Councillor Pervez Choudhry
Pervez Choudhry pleaded guilty to bigamy

Dr Shahian believes the episode has meant she has "missed the boat" at starting a family.

The GP, in her 40s from Erdington in Birmingham, spent more than two years and thousands of pounds gathering evidence against Choudhry.

The investigations, which involved a private detective, revealed Choudhry married his first "arranged" wife in 1986, with whom he had three children but never legally divorced.

But Dr Shahian, who did not want her picture published, realises she was lucky, as a career woman, to have been able to afford the detective fees and also to have support from her family to go through with the prosecution.

However she said some members of her local South Asian Muslim community were less understanding.

"When I go down to my parents I get all the neighbours looking at me.

"As a Muslim woman I'm supposed to keep a low profile. I feel like I've committed a crime here although I'm the victim.

"You're supposed to keep your mouth shut and you're supposed to just carry on. It is impregnated into our culture."

Despite this she is determined to help other Muslim women who find themselves the victim of polygamy, women who may not have the same financial security and who may feel cultural pressure not to speak out.

The Choudhry bigamy case was unusual, as more commonly the actions of Muslim men who take more than one wife are not answerable under UK law.

Polygamy 'widespread'

This is because they are able to avoid having their second or third marriages registered in the UK by having a Nikah ceremony instead - an Islamic non-registered marriage contract not recognised under British law.

For a Nikah wedding to be recognised in the UK, the marriage needs to have an accompanying civil ceremony.

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, director of think tank The Muslim Institute, said men could exploit the "cruel loophole" of the Nikah, allowing them to have more than one wife under Islamic law but not having to register the marriage in the UK, which means the woman would have no spousal rights if the marriage were to fail.

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui
Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui says some Muslim men exploit the "cruel loophole" of the Nikah

"They dump their first wife and simply go to Pakistan, Bangladesh or wherever and marry again," he said.

Leading family solicitor Annemarie Hutchinson, who represents Muslim women, said no official statistics were available but that Dr Shahian joined thousands of Muslim women in the UK who were victims of polygamous marriages.

"There are lots and lots of second marriages and second wives - it's rife."

But in cases where prosecution would be possible, she said there would be no case "unless the first or second wife pushes for it".

"It's bigamy but the police won't prosecute because there would be thousands of cases," she said.

A Muslim Marriage Working Group, set up by the Ministry of Justice, met on Monday for the first time to identify the issues "some Muslim women experience when they do not have a legally registered marriage", according to a spokesman.

But combating a cultural pressure on some Muslim women is difficult, says Dr Siddiqui.

Polygamy "is so widely spread they don't blame men having a second wife or a third or fourth wife," he said.

"They accept this is their lot."

Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain and who is an imam, said in the Koran it stated men were allowed to take more than one wife, but only under strict rules that included obtaining consent from the first wife and treating all wives equally and fairly.

He did not think there were many polygamous marriages in the UK but "condemned" the actions of men who flout the polygamy rules.

He also described as "sad" the "cultural pressures" that prevent women standing up for justice.

"Whatever cultural norms there may be, what Islam does not allow is the mistreatment of women, full stop."

Dr Shahian said: "Islam does not allow deceit and lies, but there are a lot of women who, due to their circumstances and due to their financial problems, accept being the second wife.

"I hope a lot of women out there who are suffering would put a stop to this."