Protecting Muslim Marriages Under the Law

The 2023 South African Divorce Amendment Bill 2023 signifies a significant step toward equality for Muslim South Africans. The Bill defines Muslim marriages as unions entered into or concluded under the tenets of Islam.

Background: Disadvantages Faced by Muslim Women in Customary Marriages

Before this amendment, Muslim marriages were not registered as civil unions and subsequently lacked legal recognition within the South African legal system. This left Muslim women and children particularly vulnerable during divorce proceedings. They were deprived of crucial legal safeguards regarding child custody, asset distribution, and spousal maintenance. The lack of legal recognition meant that women in these marriages had no official recourse to claim their rights or to ensure fair treatment in the event of a divorce.

The case of Women’s Legal Centre Trust v President of the Republic of South Africa and Others [2022] ZACC 23 highlighted this glaring inequality, which the Constitutional Court held to be unconstitutional. This landmark case prompted the creation of the Divorce Amendment Bill to address and rectify these injustices.

How the Change in Law Now Protects Them

The enactment of this bill will have a profound impact on the lives of Muslim South Africans. Muslim women will now have legal recourse and a voice in divorce proceedings, ensuring fairer settlements and protection from potential financial hardship. Children born from these marriages will receive the same legal safeguards as children from other unions, fostering their well-being and stability during a difficult time.

Section 6 of the Divorce Act has been amended to extend the application of the provision to include minor and dependent children of a Muslim marriage. This includes matters about the maintenance, custody, guardianship, and access to a minor child. By incorporating Muslim marriages into the Divorce Act, the bill grants Muslim spouses the same legal rights and protections afforded to couples in other recognized marriages. This includes the ability to seek a divorce through the court system, ensuring a fair and structured legal process.

Furthermore, the amendment empowers courts to order the forfeiture of patrimonial benefits (financial benefits gained during the marriage) under specific circumstances following Section 9 of the amended Divorce Act. This further safeguards the financial rights of Muslim spouses, particularly women who may have traditionally been financially dependent on their husbands.


The South African Divorce Amendment Bill is a crucial step toward achieving full legal equality for Muslim South Africans. By recognizing Muslim marriages within the existing legal framework, the bill ensures that all individuals, regardless of their religious background, have access to the same legal protections during divorce. This upholds religious freedom while promoting legal equality, ensuring that Muslim women and children are no longer left vulnerable and without recourse in the face of marital dissolution.

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