LONDON – “I’ve never ever dreamed of being in this position. When you don’t imagine it, it’s even more beautiful.”
British Muslim Lawyer Aina Khan has been awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honors List 2018, for the protection of women and children in unregistered marriages. OBE stands for Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It is an award of chivalry to recognize a person’s contribution to society.
Q: What does it feel like to get an OBE?
A: It’s overwhelming. It takes a long time to sink in. The most beautiful thing about it that your family and friends are so delighted, and you can bring people so much happiness. It’s a wonderful feeling.
That’s the most beautiful thing about it because they have supported you for so long and given you so much love and affection for what you do. To have recognition is unreal. That’s the most amazing feeling about it.
On top of that. What makes me very very happy is that the subject, that is close to my heart, is being acknowledged by the establishment and I can draw attention to the issue of unregistered marriages in a way that would change lives.
Q: Can you talk about the excitement?
A: It comes in waves. It is strange. One min you think It’s wonderful you’re happy. Then It’s like a dream, and you wake up. I can’t really describe it. I’ve never been on this kind of roller coaster ride of emotion. If I was expecting it, I would be ready. It’s the intense shock of it.
Q: How did you find out?
A: You’re told a month in advance by letter. You see an envelope that you open in your mail. Then you see the letter with the writing in strict confidence. It doesn’t even seem real because you have to hold it in. Even my children didn’t know.
You aren’t allowed to talk about it until the embargo lifts at 10:30 last night (29th Dec).
Q: What is ROM (Register Our Marriage)?
A: A campaign launched with two aims. To lobby the government to reform English marriage law. To make the law fit for purpose for today’s society, by making all faiths register their marriages, not just three faiths, as is currently the case. Second, to educate all the communities who are vulnerable, that there are no legal rights if you do not have UK registered marriages or a (legal) marriage that has been conducted abroad.
(Background: 60% of Muslim women in the UK, while they have had a nikah, have not had a civil marriage. Meaning that their marriage is not recognized by the law.)
Q: Top 3 ROM challenges! How have they been resolved?
A: I believe in this. I know It’s the right thing to do. So whatever the challenges they will be managed.
The biggest challenge was lack of legislative time, due to Brexit. It is a challenge to get the government to look at anything other than Brexit. So, it will take maybe a couple of years to get the law changed. But we are in the queue, we’re waiting, and in the meantime, we are educating people across the UK, that the law does not protect them so they must protect themselves.
The second challenge would be people who think you should give up straight away. I’ve been told what’s the point of you doing this when so many have tried and nothing changes with the government. And my view is that that doesn’t stop you doing your best. Because somehow if It’s meant to be it will be.
Third challenge. No funding from anyone. The whole thing is run by volunteers. Usually, just me, being allowed to pursue this passion by my family and friends supporting me. No support for anybody, doing this around the country. You can keep waiting for government handouts or just do it yourself.
Q: How many major events have you run since you began ROM?
A: Nationwide and internationally, 12 major roadshows and presentations. It is time-consuming and intense. It is important to do it with real results. I’ve always believed that instead of words via social media only, it should be about real change, organic change on the ground. And that’s how It’s turned out. By trusting people to spread knowledge, if 100 come to a roadshow they will tell 10 people each and that is how the grassroots have grown for me.
The most delightful aspect of it is people telling us they are getting married legally, and their relationships are stronger because of that. It is wonderful.
Q: Have you experienced any negativity?
A: There is always Britain First’s (far-right extremists) people ready to say something, making it out to be about victims and communities. Then in the Muslim community, it is a major and growing issue, and you get people who are defensive, not wanting any light shed on it as it’s ‘not a problem.’ But I’m right in trusting humanity to know what is good common sense. 95% of the reaction (in the Muslim communities) have been positive, I’ve hardly faced any negativity among Muslims.
Q: How will the award help you?
A: I have no idea. I haven’t even thought about it. Because it was never part of a strategy to win an award. It comes out of the blue. It is something we will ride, this wave of goodwill. And we’re going to surf it. And the way to surf it we’ll make sure that through social media, through our website we harness the energy that is coming to us. And to ensure that everybody becomes a brand ambassador for ROM.
Q: What do the letters mean to you?
A: I have this sense of classic British modesty and didn’t want to talk about it. But I was told by the cabinet office that we have to use the letters after our name, we have to talk about why we were given these letters, so we can spread our cause even further.
Q: Are you excited about meeting the Queen?
A: They will to us soon to invite us to meet the Queen. It’s called an investiture. Then you are given the protocol for being presented to the Queen. She pins a medal to your chest. She says a few sentences to you. You can take your family with you. And It’s an incredible moment. I’ve been in Buckingham Palace as a tourist with friends, but that’s something else. (This meeting will happen) Any time over the next six months.
Q: What happened at the Tower of London?
A: I was asked two days ago to be one of the six representatives at the tower of London. I was so impressed by the way the cabinet office organized the event. One member of the cabinet officers is assigned to look after you. A Beefeater gives you a private tour of the Tower of London. And you get to see the crown jewels privately. A spectacular VIP feeling. Then you go to a press conference at the Tower of London. I was asked to give my story for five minutes. Then they interview you on the radio, TV, broadsheets, then they photograph you. It is almost like a wedding day.
After a wedding day and having two children, nothing happens after that. Then this happens.
Q: What’s been the best response so far?
A: My favorite response to the whole thing so far has been my nephew and his wife in Australia, who on a beach drew a silver crown on the sand and sent it to me. People are so happy for you across the world.
Q: How does your family feel about this?
A: One of the best things is to make your parents proud. When your father-in-law says how proud you’ve made him, that’s when the tears came. You don’t cry normally. You feel tears that somebody has been brought so much happiness. That is special.
Q: How about the volunteers who work with you on ROM?
A: The other joy is that I can share this with all of the people who were on the campaign. That they are such good human beings. Everyone just doing it because if they believe passionately in the cause. It’s wonderful because they now have recognition for what they believe in. Their lives will change because words are getting out people are listening.
Q: Do you feel under pressure as a role model for British Muslim Women?
A: No pressure at all. If you are doing what you passionately believe in, then it’s a joy. And to hear people telling me today that it’s an inspiration to them. They now know that every little thing they do makes a difference and they carry on doing it. It makes a world of difference to me to hear that.
People have written to me to say that it’s an inspiration.