Muslim women complain about Sharia inquiries

By Martin Bashir
Religious affairs correspondent

image copyrightReuters

More than 100 Muslim women have complained about their treatment under two government probes into Sharia law.

The inquiries - one ordered by Theresa May when she was home secretary, and another by the home affairs select committee - are ongoing.

But some women have signed an open letter and said the aim was to ban Sharia councils, not reform them.

The Muslim Women's Network UK said the inquiries risked treating women like "political footballs".

However, the Home Office said its inquiry's chair, panel and advisers were "carefully selected and represent a wide range of relevant experience and expertise".

The councils are tribunals often used to settle disputes within the Muslim community.

The first evidence session on Sharia councils is due to be held by the Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

But Shaista Gohir, the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, said the inquiries could patronise women.

"Everyone wants to listen to Muslim women when highlighting their terrible experiences.

"However when it comes to the solutions, everyone thinks they know what is best for them," she said.

image captionShaista Gohir says shutting down Sharia councils would mean their activities "go underground"

"I do feel that there are people who are anti-faith, particularly anti-Islam, who are using women's rights as a guise, wanting to abolish Sharia councils.

"If tomorrow or next year you shut down Sharia councils, what would result is Muslim women stuck in marriages, abusive marriages sometimes, and the Sharia divorce service would actually go underground.

"That would result in less transparency, higher prices and more discrimination," Ms Gohir added.

What are Sharia councils?

Sharia councils are tribunals that seek to apply Islamic laws to everything from financial disputes to marital conflicts.

They are unregulated and largely unknown to the wider public.

The precise number of these councils in the UK is not clear, although research by Reading University suggests the total is about 30.

However, crossbench peer Lady Cox, a longstanding critic of Sharia councils, says women are "suffering" under the system and she has repeatedly tried to get legislation through Parliament to reform the councils.

"So many Muslim women come to me and tell me how desperately unhappy they are," she said.

"One lady came to me last week and had gone almost suicidal with the provisions of a Sharia council.

"So we need to look at the whole system and the way it operates."

'Raw deal'

Lady Cox rejected as "absolute rubbish" the suggestion that critics were using the position of women in Islam to attack Sharia councils.

"A lot of the women who support me are Muslim women, who don't have a voice.

"Some of the strongest support for what I'm advocating comes from Muslim women themselves," she said.

A Home Office spokesman said: "This government commissioned an independent review of the application of Sharia law as there is evidence some Sharia councils may be working in a discriminatory and unacceptable way."

He added that the review's chair, panel and advisers "bring strong academic knowledge, legal insight and credible expertise in religion and theology".

Labour MP Naz Shah, who sits on the Home Affairs Committee, said the councils could never be a replacement for the civil courts.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, she said: "Sharia itself is a code of conduct and the fundamental principle of Sharia is that the law of the land precedes anything, it takes precedence.

"You cannot enforce and have a second paralegal system in this country.

"As a British law-maker, I am very clear we have one law and that law is that of the British court.

"The Sharia is there to support women and communities to things that they want to access and that's a choice for them."

media captionThe Labour MP concerned that Sharia councils 'run for men'.

But the Bradford West MP added: "There's lots of issues with Sharia councils - usually they are under-resourced, there's not that professional standard - what we need to be doing is supporting the Sharia councils.

"Sharia councils are sometimes last resorts where people who have lost legal aid; we've had austerity kicking in and the courts don't want to deal with small disputes, so they can act as a complementary arbitration service.

"But what we need to be careful of is whether they are discriminating against women and that is where the issue lies."

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