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Cape Town - Muslim marriages will be recognised as legal from Wednesday for the first time in South African history – a move described as more than 300 years in the making.

More than 100 Muslim clerics, or imams, will on Wednesday graduate as marriage officers in a pilot project by the Department of Home Affairs which will allow them to officiate over unions that will be recognised by law.

Since Muslims were first brought to South Africa as slaves more than three centuries ago their marriages had no legal standing before Wednesday’s graduation.

Children born from these marriages were regarded as illegitimate, while women were not regarded as spouses when attempting to claim against their deceased husbands’ estates.

The imams graduating on Wednesday completed a three-day course during which they learned about the Marriage Act of 1961 and wrote an exam.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor, her deputy Fatima Chohan and Muslim leaders are to attend the graduation in Pinelands on Wednesday.

All first-time Muslim marriages will now be recorded on the National Population Register, said Home Affairs spokesman Lunga Ngqengelele.

Attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre, Hoodah Abrahams, said having Muslim clerics as official marriage officers had important legal implications for Muslim couples and their children.

“This is definitely a step in the right direction for the long struggle to have Muslim marriages legalised. We have been strong advocates to have it recognised,” she said.

Abrahams said Muslim women had for many years suffered as a result of their marriages not being recognised under the South African Marriage Act.

“In most scenarios, we find that when men are the breadwinners and when there are complications in the marriage, women are not favoured legally.

We currently have a number of workshops to raise awareness for people who get married and are not aware that their marriages are not legally registered,” she said.

The centre had fought the case of Hanover Park grandmother, the now late Suleiga Daniels, who in 1994 lost her house because she was not recognised as the surviving spouse after her husband, Moegamat Daniels, died.

The couple had moved into their home when they were married in 1977 and shared it for 17 years until his death. Because they had been married according to Muslim rites, Daniels was informed by the Master of the High Court on her husband’s death that she could not benefit from his estate. Daniels’ case was won in 2011.

Daniels’ daughter Yasmina Mohamed told the Cape Times on Tuesday: “Our mother died in March last year. I’m very pleased to hear that Muslim marriages will be recognised at last. Muslim women will now be better protected. My mother had a very long battle to get what rightfully belonged to her and had vowed not to give up.”

In another landmark case, Fatima Gabie Hassam’s marriage was recognised only after a lengthy legal battle. She was the first of her husband’s two wives. He died without leaving a will and she could not inherit, but in 2004, and with the help of city attorney Igshaan Higgins, she went to court and won.

The Western Cape High Court ruling in her favour was referred to the Constitutional Court for confirmation.

Confirming the ruling, Constitutional Court Justice Bess Nkabinde said Hassam’s right to equality had been violated and that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of religion and marital status.

Higgins, who was on pilgrimage in Mecca on Tuesday, said: “Muslims in South Africa have suffered the indignity of non-recognition for more than (three centuries) and it is certainly a step in the right direction for the imams to be recognised as marriage officers.

“However, any celebration should be suspended until Muslim Personal Law becomes a reality for all those Muslim wives, mothers, daughters and sisters who suffer proprietary hardships on a daily basis as a result of non recognition.”

Muslim Judicial Council SA (MJC) deputy president Sheikh Riad Fataar said the marriage officer’s course was “groundbreaking” for Muslim marriages after decades of attempts to have them recognised.

“We’ve been involved in the programme since we first raised the question about Muslim marriages with Home Affairs. We contacted different imams, those who belonged to the MJC and those who didn’t, to join the course. This is a groundbreaking step for us. For the first time in our history our marriages will be recognised and our children won’t be seen as illegitimate in terms of the law,” he said.

Fataar said the marriages performed by the graduates would still be in line with the requirements of sharia (Muslim law).

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Cape Times