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Explained: Under Abu Dhabi’s new law on marriage and divorce, what changes for non-Muslims?

The law is the first civil law passed by the Emirates concerning non-Muslim family matters.

Written by Sanskriti Falor , Edited by Explained Desk | Jaipur |
Updated: November 10, 2021 8:13:53 am
Tourists walk through Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at dusk in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/File)

Abu Dhabi passed a law on Sunday allowing non-Muslims to marry, divorce and get joint child custody under civil law in the country. Before this, non-Muslims here had to get married in the embassy or consulate of their country.

According to the Judicial Department of Abu Dhabi, the aim of this move is to provide “a flexible and advanced judicial mechanism for the determination of personal status disputes for non-Muslims, thus enhancing the Emirate’s position and global competitiveness as one of the most attractive destinations for talent and skills”.

What is the Personal Status Law for non-Muslims?

The law has been issued by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the President of the United Arab Emirates.

The law is the first civil law passed by the Emirates concerning non-Muslim family matters. As per the Judicial department of Abu Dhabi, the law aims at guaranteeing the right to non-Muslims to adhere to an “internationally acknowledged law” in terms of customs, culture, language and protecting the best interests of their children.

Being the first of its kind in gulf countries, where marriage and divorce laws are guided through Islamic Sharia law, the new law would apply civil principles in the regulation of all family matters pertaining to non-Muslims.

Under the new law, courts dedicated to non-Muslim family matters will be set up by the Judicial Department, and will function in Arabic and English “in order to facilitate the understanding of judicial procedures by foreigners and to improve judicial transparency”, the Justice Department said, announcing the set up of the first such court.

As per Abu Dhabi Judicial Department (ADJD), the law comprises 20 articles, which are divided into five chapters relating to civil marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

The first chapter of the law amends the marriage procedure for foreigners by bringing in the concept of marriage being held on the will of husband and wife.

The second chapter lays down laws for divorce procedures for non-Muslims, outlining the rights of divorced partners and financial rights of a wife after divorce. The monetary rights of a wife after separation would be left to the discretion of a judge based on criteria such as “the number of years of marriage, the age of the wife, the economic standing of each of the spouses”.

The third chapter deals with the custody of a child after divorce. It introduces the concept of joint custody, where a child’s custody is equally shared between mother and father. The law brings in this concept “to safeguard the cohesion of the family after divorce and to preserve the psychological health of the children”.

The fourth chapter sets up laws for inheritance, registration of wills for non-Muslims and also establishes the right of a foreigner to draw a will and pass on their assets to whomever they choose.

The fifth chapter of the law addresses the proof of paternity for non-Muslim foreigners, “providing that the proof of paternity of the newborn child is based on marriage or recognition of paternity”.

Youssef Saeed Al Abri, Undersecretary of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, said that the judicial department has been working to “provide innovative solutions to non-Muslims’ personal status issues that are brought before the courts, after studying and analysing them and working to come up with sophisticated legislative solutions that provide a modern judicial framework for foreigners residing in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi to resolve family disputes in a flexible manner in line with international best practices”.

What has the law changed for non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi?

For marriages under Sharia law, both bride and groom have to be Muslims, or the groom can be Muslim and the bride can be Christian. While Muslim men are allowed to marry non-Muslim women, vice versa is not permitted.

The new law doesn’t require the consent of the woman’s guardian anymore and only requires the marriage to be held on the will of the man and woman.

Non-Muslims can seek divorce without having to prove that harm was done in the marriage and either of the spouses can file for divorce. According to Khaleej Times, a UAE media organisation, earlier, physical harm had to be proved for divorce.

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Earlier, after filing for divorce, couples had to go to the Family Guidance department and a court-appointed conciliator tried to reconcile the two partners. Now, the divorce can be granted at the first hearing without going through these processes.

In the case of a child’s custody, while the new law allows both parents to have joint custody and equally share the custody after divorce, earlier, the custody would be with the mother and the father used to be a guardian (to financially provide) of the child.

According to the older law, “Custody and guardianship are two separate issues that must be addressed individually as parents do not share equal responsibilities for a child in the UAE”.

UAE’s move towards liberalisation of strict laws

The law, as per the leaders of UAE, “reflects Abu Dhabi’s legislative leadership and the global status it has achieved”, and is not the first time the country has reformed laws along with changing times.

Last year, UAE reformed personal Islamic laws to decriminalise premarital sexual relations among couples, loosen alcohol restrictions and criminalise the practice of honour killing.

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