Muslim Marriages Bill heading for Cabinet

Justice bosses are rushing through laws that will stop Muslim women from being treated as second-class citizens - only weeks after their failure to pass such laws saw legal action being launched against President Kgalema Motlanthe .

The Department of Justice said on Monday that a Muslim Marriages Bill - which recognises marriages concluded according to Islamic rites - should be submitted to the cabinet for approval this week.

The Women's Legal Centre launched a Constitutional Court application against Motlanthe and justice and parliamentary heads last month, claiming they had failed to fulfil their "obligations in relation to equality of women" by not passing legislation recognising marriages under Islamic rites.

Justice Department spokes-person Zolile Nqayi said on Monday that Justice Minister Enver Surty and Presidency adviser Ebrahim Rasool had met with the Muslim Judicial Commission and United Ulama Council in Cape Town on Thursday "to discuss the recognition of Muslim marriages in South Africa".

According to Women's Legal Centre chairperson Shaamela Cassiem, the failure of government left women married under Islamic rites vulnerable because the status and custody of the children born from their marriages, their divorces and maintenance, fall outside South African law.

The centre argues that the state's failure to recognise marriages concluded in accordance with Islamic rites discriminates against Muslim women on the grounds of gender and religion.

"The minister briefed the council and other Muslim leaders on the developments around the Muslim Marriages Bill which is going to be presented to a subcommittee of Cabinet for consideration,"he said.

Nqayi said the government would defend the court action taken against it by the Women's Legal Centre.

Meanwhile, the centre's director, Jennifer Williams, has stressed that it does not wish to argue for what the Muslim Marriages Bill should be.

"The state must follow due process by being transparent and consult with the community. What we are doing is appealing to the Constitutional Court that legislation should be passed within a timeframe as a matter of urgency to alleviate the prejudicial effect on Muslim women," she said.

While acknowledging that South African courts had recognised Muslim women's constitutional rights to equality by making several decisions in relation to Muslim marriages, Williams said this fell "short of being able to provide adequate protection".

"Rather than piecemeal legislation developed through the courts, it is incumbent on the state to pass legislation governing marriages concluded in terms of Islamic rites," she said.

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