JOHANNESBURG - In a landmark judgement, a South African court has ruled that Muslim widows in polygamous marriages are entitled to a proportional share of their husbands’ estates.
An 11-judge Constitutional Court has unanimously ruled that the current legal position, in which other wives of a Muslim man were excluded from inheriting from his estate, was unconstitutional. Muslim men may have up to four wives according to Islamic law.
The court was ruling Wednesday on a petition by Fatima Hassam, 62, of Cape Town, whose husband died intestate and she was debarred from inheriting any portion of the estate because he had married another woman under the South African law.
The executor of the estate rejected all of Hassam’s claims against the estate because the South African law does not recognise more than one marriage.
Hassam, who was supported by the Muslim Youth Movement and the Women’s Legal Centre, sought relief from the court.
The court further ruled that the current legal position infringed on the rights of Muslim women to equality, religious freedom and human dignity.
Hassam, a grandmother and married to her husband for 36 years, returned from a pilgrimage to Makkah in 2000 to find that her husband had taken a second wife.
“My whole world fell apart as everything I had helped him build by working 16 hours a day for seven days a week in the two supermarkets he owned was given to the second wife and her minor children,” Hassam said.
Na’eem Jinnah, spokesperson for the Muslim Youth Movement, called the judgement “a great victory for Muslim women”.
There are currently separate moves afoot to have the Marriage Act amended to recognise multiple marriages of Muslim men.
But there have been delays for almost a decade now because of alleged dissent within different religious representative bodies for the Muslim community.
“I am pleased that I and my children are also now protected by this judgement,” said Aneesa Rawat, who said she was the second wife of a businessman and had two young children with him.
“My husband spends his time equally with his first wife and their four teenage children and us, and we have always had fair treatment from him. But I always worried about what would happen if, God forbid, he was not there any longer.”
Although younger South African Muslims rarely have more than one wife, the practice of taking a second and sometimes even a third wife was fairly common among the early settlers from India at the turn of the century, and continued until the 1960s.
(Fakir Hassen can be contacted at email@example.com)