Myriam Francois-Cerrah, Telegraph (London), July 17, 2014
Back in 2008 when Dr Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested officially sanctioning Sharia law in Britain could improve community relations, uproar ensued. In the years since “Sharia courts” have never been far from tabloid headlines, but all too often the facts are lost in outrage. The reality is Sharia courts–or more accurately Sharia councils have been operating in the UK since the 1980s, but very little has been understood about how they operate.
Sharia councils are able to provide advice to those Muslims who voluntarily choose to use them to resolve civil and family disputes. Sharia law is Islam’s legal system. It derives from the Koran and the Hadiths, the sayings and customs attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, as well as fatwas–the rulings of Islamic scholars.
Currently, Sharia principles are not formally addressed by or included in Britain’s laws. However, a network of Sharia courts has grown up in Islamic communities to deal with disputes between Muslim families.
There are reported to be around 85 such courts in the UK–however they could be more.
As Leyton’s Sharia council in London states, 95 per cent of its cases are matrimonial problems, the majority stemming from women seeking divorce.
So why would Muslim women choose to use them? One woman told me her “husband would never have listened to a relationship counsellor. But a shaykh, an older man with Islamic knowledge, that he respects”.
Sharia councils operate under the Arbitration Act which allows consenting adults to resolve disputes conflicts, civil or commercial as long as this doesn’t conflict with UK law. Humera Khan, co-founder of the An-NisaSsociety, an organisation that works for the welfare of Muslim families believes Sharia councils can provide an essential service. Khan points out many Muslims see Sharia as a sacred reference and that if used voluntarily, they are actually lifting a burden off state funded services.
But there are serious problems. In the last few months, I helped research for a Channel 4 News report highlighting how vulnerable Muslim women have been badly advised. We met Sara–a woman who finally left her violent schizophrenic husband after years of domestic abuse and ended up in a custody battle over their child. Sara received a letter from a Sharia council requesting that she attend a meeting with a controversial cleric. Despite making him aware of her ex-husband’s criminal conviction for assault of her eldest child, she says he advised her to hand over full custody of her seven year old child to her former partner. He denies the allegations.
So how should we best assist women who end up using Sharia councils, given that for many Muslims the advice they offer will be considered as authoritative? The cases confronting the councils are often complex and require a range of skills which exceed the strictly theological training of those hearing them. Incidents of malpractice are far too common, with several women I interviewed saying despite experiencing domestic abuse, they were being asked what part they’d played in provoking the abuse, or worse advised to return home to a violent partner. Had they denied him sex? Been too focused on the kids and neglecting him?
The “One law for all” campaign argues the only way to end discrimination suffered by Muslim women is to ban these religious tribunals, but it’s not as clear cut as that. There is undoubtedly real discrimination–some readings of Sharia promote principles which run counter to UK equality legislation and in some councils, women are asked to pay four times the price men do for a divorce.
But while the call to ban Sharia councils is often seen as a way of protecting women, many women I have interviewed feel a ban would disempower them, by removing one of the potentially powerful avenues through which they could exercise religious pressure on their husbands or family members.
Lawyer and rabbi Alex Goldberg believes a ban would be counterproductive. He says it would “bolster underground councils rather than those who are seeking to work within the English legal framework, and recognise they are subservient to the English law. Why would you want to reward underground councils?” Goldberg maintains these councils offer a legitimate avenue for resolving conflicts.
For Imam and broadcaster Ajmal Masroor, one of the downfalls of the current system is the fact anyone can set up a Sharia council. Lack of oversight and an absence of consistent standards means individuals with little or no training are found dispensing life changing advice. He believes “the way forward is to bring them in line with regulations and good practice standards”.
One woman keen to reform Sharia councils is Amra Bone, a Muslim scholar who sits on the Birmingham Mosque Sharia council. She says: “Sharia is often not perceived as compatible with British law, but what is Sharia? For us, it is based on equity, compassion, human dignity. I don’t think there is a conflict between Sharia and equalities legislation, the issue is with texts being applied literally without the historical context.” She points out that the UK board of Sharia councils, of which she is a trustee, is already working to formalise and standardise procedures in order to address some of the concerns emanating from within the community.
The fact that individuals in Sharia councils are able to dispense dangerous advice is deeply worrying. But a grassroots movement to reform and regulate Sharia councils is burgeoning. Rigorous vetting and training need to become standard, better regulation is undoubtedly necessary to help those being let down by the ad hoc nature of sharia councils. But a politicised and overly rash ban would only disadvantage women–those who seem most reliant on the services.