Muslim couples urged to register civil marriages to avoid challenges ahead

Fatima Asmal

Muslim couples who do not register their marriages with the Department of Home Affairs could find themselves facing various challenges in the event of death or divorce – this is the message Fatima Chohan, the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs hopes to convey to Muslim women during a countrywide roadshow she recently embarked on.

The roadshow is aimed at encouraging women to be proactive in terms of registering their unions as civil marriages.
“There have been instances where women have been left penniless after 20 to 30 of marriage because their marriages were not registered,” Chohan told Al-Qalam during a recent visit to Kwazulu-Natal, where she addressed various audiences about the subject.

This is because the marital status of a couple is only officially recognised by the state once it is recorded onto the National Population Register, a database containing the profile of every South African citizen held under the auspices of the department of home affairs, she explained. “A nikaah certificate cannot be lodged with the Department of Home Affairs, and can therefore not be recorded onto the National Population Register.”

Chohan explained that because the Muslim Marriages Bill has not been finally processed through parliament, in 2014 the Department of Home Affairs decided to hold discussions with ulama bodies in the Western Cape, Gauteng and KZN, looking at ways in which existing laws could be used to enable Muslims to access different options for registering their marriages.

These discussions culminated in the Department certifying over 200 Imams across South Africa as marriage officers. “They were nominated as marriage officers by the mosques within their constituencies and were then put through an intensive two day programme during which aspects like the requirements of a valid marriage, and the aspects of legislation which need to be complied with were covered, after which they were issued with official marriage registers, enabling them to perform civil marriages.”

However, it was found that most of the Imams are not performing civil marriages, hence the department embarking on a road show targeting women.

“We were very happy with the partnerships we formed during our engagements with the ulama bodies – we covered a lot of ground. But we feel that whilst we have created a supply of Imams who are marriage officers, we haven’t created a demand,” explained Chohan.

The Department then embarked on a roadshow, first in the Western Cape, and then in KZN after which Muslim women in Gauteng will be targeted.

One of the department’s main aims during the roadshow is to educate women on how to have their marriages registered. Chohan explained the relevant steps as follows:
1) Before getting married, the couple needs to decide how their matrimonial property will devolve upon death or divorce.

2) If they want their matrimonial property to devolve on a 50/50 basis (community of property), they need only go to a certified marriage officer to have their marriage registered.

3) If, however, they choose to conclude an ante-nuptial contact (the opposite of community of property), they would first need to consult an attorney who is a notary to draw up and notarise a contract with the deeds registry before solemnisation, after which they need to go to a certified marriage officer to have their marriage registered.

She added, however, that even a couple whose nikaah was performed many years ago, can have a civil marriage registered either at the Department of Home Affairs, or with an Imam who is a certified marriage officer.

Chohan said that couples who choose not to register their marriages do have that option, but need to understand the risk that goes with not doing so. “In that case, at least conclude a contract between the two parties and ensure that there is a Will which properly sets out what happens in the case of an untimely death.”

She stressed however that banks and other financial institutions rely on the Department of Home Affairs database. “For example in the case of a pension fund pay out where the beneficiary is the wife, the pension fund will want some kind of proof of marriage and the only real way to prove that a marriage exists is by having it registered through Home Affairs.”

“We – as women – need to understand what our rights are, and it is up to us to ensure that our future husbands stick to the dictates of the Shari’ah,” she concluded.

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