Muslim women in Britain are being forced to “live in fear” because of the spread of unofficial and unregulated sharia courts enforcing Islamic rules, the House of Lords was told.
Rulings by informal religious “councils” and tribunals are sometimes no more “consensual” than rape, peers were told.
The warnings came in the first ever full Parliamentary debate on the subject in the UK.
Baroness Cox, the independent peer and Third World campaigner, last year tabled a private member’s bill in the Lords setting out plans to rein in a network of unofficial self-styled “courts” which apply Islamic principles.
One study estimated that there are around 85 Sharia bodies operating in Britain, although there is no official estimate.
They include legally recognised arbitration tribunals, set up primarily to resolve financial disputes using Islamic legal principles but which have taken on a wider range of cases.
There is also a network of informal Sharia “councils”, often operating out of mosques, dealing with religious divorces and even child custody matters in line with Islamic teaching.
The bill, which had its first full debate yesterday, would make it a criminal offence for such bodies to style themselves as courts or those chairing them to pose as judges.
It would also limit the activities of arbitration tribunals and explicitly require them to uphold equality laws including women’s rights.
Baroness Cox told the House of cases she had encountered including a woman who had been admitted to hospital by her violent husband who had left her for another woman but still denied her a religious divorce so she could remarry.
Another woman was forced to travel to Jordan to seek permission to remarry from a seven-year-old boy whom she had never met because she had no other male relatives, she said.
A third who came to see her was so scared of being seen going in that she hid behind a tree whole another told her: “I feel betrayed by Britain, I came to this country to get away from all this but the situation is worse here than in my country of origin.”
Baroness Cox said: “These examples are just the tip of an iceberg as many women live in fear, so intimidated by family and community that they dare not speak out or ask for help.”
Meanwhile Baroness Donaghy added: “The definition of mutuality is sometimes being stretched to such limits that a women is said to consent to a process when in practice, because of a language barrier, huge cultural or family pressure, ignorance of the law, a misplaced faith in the system or a threat of complete isolation, that mutuality is as consensual as rape.”
Lord Carlile, the legal expert, was among those backing the bill but the Bishop of Manchester urged caution arguing that it could end up “stigmatising those individuals in communities it is aiming to help”.
And Baroness Uddin, the first female Muslim peer, said it would be viewed as “another assault on Muslims”.
Lord Kalms, the businessman, claimed that self-styled Sharia courts had already reached far beyond mediation to areas such as criminal law.
“To my knowledge, none of these cases has ever received police attention or investigation, and this is a scandal for which the police, among other authorities, must be held responsible,” he said.