Muslim Women Deserve Better than Sharia Law

Feminist campaigners are outraged by the Law Society’s advocacy    of a code that protects violence and enshrines legal inequality

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Maryam Namazie of One Law for All: "There is no place for sharia in Britain's legal system just as there is no place for it anywhere." (credit: Peter Curbishlie/Amnesty International)

The British legal system is rightly considered one of the fairest in the world. But with the growth of sharia law, a parallel system that is based on inequality and ancient religious doctrine, in towns and cities across the UK, that proud system could well be under threat.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, is seeking to enshrine sharia within the British legal system. In March, the society discreetly published guidelines, distributed to all lawyers, to “assist solicitors who have been instructed to prepare a valid will, which follows sharia succession rules” while remaining valid under British law.

Feminist campaigners Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and the secularist organisation One Law for All (OLfA) mounted a legal challenge to the Law Society on the grounds that it contravened gender equality and human rights law. The Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority (SRA) agreed to withdraw its endorsement of the practice note, but the Law Society refused to do so, arguing that “no equality and diversity implications” arose from the note. The campaigners are currently taking further legal advice on the question of whether solicitors acting on the practice note might be themselves acting unlawfully.

The guidelines penalise widows, non-believers and children born outside marriage. Illegitimate and adopted children are not sharia heirs. The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class. Non-Muslims may not inherit at all, and only Muslim marriages are recognised. Similarly, a divorced spouse is no longer a sharia heir, as the entitlement depends on a valid Muslim marriage existing at the date of death.

All women are adversely affected by the implementation of sharia, as it perpetuates the notion that it is reasonable to privilege men over women for no reason other than they are born male. A number of feminist, secular and human rights organisations are challenging the creeping acceptance of sharia and speaking out against the non-Muslim cultural relativists who believe that allowing some forms of sharia to operate is good for cultural harmony.

Sharia courts or councils enjoy the support of a number of non-Muslim establishment figures, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. In a 2008 interview he said: “There’s a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law.” It is estimated that there are currently around 85 sharia courts operating in Britain.

The growing acceptance of sharia in the UK has led to the formation of a Muslim Arbitration Tribunal in 2007 which, according to its website, was endorsed by the former President of the Supreme Court, Lord Phillips.

In 2008 Sheikh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi, spokesman for the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, defended the decision in six domestic violence cases arbitrated by a UK sharia court not to punish the alleged perpetrators or report them to the police but rather to advise the men to take anger management classes and receive mentoring from so-called community elders so that marriages could be “saved”. In each case, the women were advised by the sharia court to withdraw their complaints to the police. Usually, they obey.

The voices of Muslim women who have suffered terrible consequences as a result of sharia taking root in Britain are often silenced. I spoke with a number of women who have had experience of sharia courts.

Fawzia married her husband when she was 16 years old and was divorced eight years later. The marriage was an Islamic ceremony, and her divorce was eventually granted by a sharia council four years after she first went to see her local imam. Fawzia’s story, and those of numerous other women, should provide a cautionary tale of how sharia courts are gaining creeping acceptance in the UK.

Afzal, the man chosen by her parents to be Fawzia’s husband, was 30 years old and had been married previously. “I had never met him,” Fawzia told me when we met in Hyde Park, her chador covering her tiny frame. “When he started to hit me I thought it was me causing him to do it.” What Fawzia did not know when she married Afzal was his history of violence towards women. The year before he married Fawzia, Afzal had broken his sister’s wrist in an attempt to keep her from seeing her boyfriend, and then attacked his brother’s mother-in-law when she intervened.

“He started hitting me when I was pregnant with my first baby,” says Fawzia, who agreed to meet me through a women’s counselling service, “and it never stopped.”

By the time Fawzia was 20 she had three children and numerous scars from the regular beatings she endured from Afzal, but had nowhere to escape to. She went alone to see her imam, who suggested she speak to a scholar at one of the many sharia councils in London. “I told [the scholar] that I was desperately unhappy, that my children were being neglected, that I could not cope in this marriage. I admitted he hit me. I was told to be a good wife and to make my husband more happy.”

Fawzia was eventually granted an Islamic divorce, which her husband contested, four years later. She had to pay £400, the standard cost for women applying for divorce. Men who apply for divorce to sharia courts are charged just £200.

Baroness Cox, a cross-bench peer who in 2011 tabled the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill in the House of Lords, argues that sharia is clearly a parallel legal system. The previous government gave up trying to investigate sharia courts, claiming that they could not gain sufficient access. The current government has claimed that the injustice handed out to women by Muslim clerics in sharia courts (outlined in Equal and Free?, a report that contains evidence in support of Baroness Cox’s Bill) can be dealt with by existing laws.

Another vociferous critic of sharia courts is Nazir Afzal, the chief prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service in the North-West, who has described the phenomenon of sharia arbitrators who deal with cases of domestic violence as dangerous. Maryam Namazie, of One Law for All, believes that it is now seen as “perfectly acceptable” to defend sharia courts or gender segregation as “people’s right to religion”, even for some feminists, humanists and secularists. “This legitimisation means that institutions like the Law Society think nothing of endorsing sharia law,” says Namazie. “What they don’t realise is that they are institutionalising Islamist values.”

Many British Muslims are critical of the British establishment’s support for sharia. Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, says sharia councils should be penalised when they try to assume a legal status that they do not have. “I think a lot of people — both Muslim and non-Muslim — are not aware of these issues in any great detail, and do not feel equipped to publicly critique them. Raising awareness of these problems would encourage commentators who might otherwise feel too afraid to speak out.”

It seems incredible that after more than four decades of feminism in the West so many on the Left are willing to sacrifice women’s rights, in particular the rights of Muslim-born women, in the name of so-called religious freedom. Kate Smurthwaite, feminist activist and member of the National Secular Society, believes that all organised religion is detrimental to the rights of women. “Speaking out against sharia law in the UK is often viewed as racist, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Smurthwaite. “The first victims of sharia are Muslim women.”

Rahilla Gupta is a member of Southall Black Sisters and an outspoken critic of religious fundamentalism. Gupta is aware of a number of cases where social workers have approached sharia court officials asking for “expert reports” when there are disputes over divorce and child custody. “Theoretically they are not involved in the mainstream legal system, so this calling of witnesses from sharia courts is very dangerous,” says Gupta. “Some whites support sharia, thinking they are supporting Muslim women, but many of these women are completely opposed to religion within law in their lives because they have seen the damage it has done.”

Just because some Muslim women argue that they should be allowed access to the sharia system does not mean we should let it become a part of British law. Habiba Jaan is the founder of Aurat, a support service for Muslim women in the West Midlands. She told me that only a decade ago she rarely heard of sharia courts, but now “they appear to be on every doorstep”.

“This is not an Islamic country, which is why so many of us came to live here. If sharia were to become part of the legal system it would be a disaster for women,” says Jaan. “Many are not even aware of their rights so they think sharia is the proper law.”

I spoke to Aatifa, a religious Muslim woman living in Leicester who has been living in temporary accommodation since her husband threw her out. “He wanted to bring home a new wife,” says Aatifa, “but I cannot cope with that.” Aatifa complained and her husband took her to the sharia court in their mosque. “He was told it was fine to bring back another wife, even up to three more. I pleaded with the imam to listen to my concerns, but because we have not had children yet, it was ruled that I had not fulfilled my duties as a wife and had no rights.” Polygamy is of course illegal under UK law, but not under sharia.

John Bowen, author of Blaming Islam, is an anthropologist based at Washington University in St Louis. He specialises in comparative social studies of Islam across the world. Bowen has found that Britain is unique in having a well-developed network of sharia courts, and has interviewed imams, scholars and members of the public who access them. He argues that sharia councils do not have any legal power, and are therefore harmless bodies that simply allow people to settle disputes without accessing mainstream courts. I asked Bowen what he thought about such bodies making decisions on divorce when women cite domestic violence. “The accusation is that sharia councils try to bring couples back together, but this is the case with mainstream law, which is why there is waiting time before a divorce, mediation and couples counselling. A reconciliation and a joint meeting of the husband and wife is always urged.”

But under UK law, women do not have to ask for permission from their violent husband, self-appointed community leader or religious representative in order to be granted a divorce. I asked Bowen if he was concerned about women who are frightened of their imam and are told by a sharia court that they must return to a violent husband. “If somebody is given a sharia ruling they don’t like they can just go to the [secular] court and get another,” he replied. But what about those women who are married in Islamic ceremonies, speak little English, and believe that the word of the imam is law?

Sharia is an important tool with which the Islamist movement restricts women’s freedom. There is a link between sharia and the rise of Islamism, including groups like Islamic State or the Muslim Brotherhood. Many, however, whether naively or deliberately, fail to see it. The legitimisation of sharia has a negative effect on women, children and society as a whole. These effects are noticeable from Iraq to Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as in Britain.

In October 2010, the president of the UK Islamic Sharia Council, Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, stated that rape within marriage is “impossible”. Yet in 1991, after decades of campaigning by feminists, the marital exemption from rape was outlawed by the House of Lords, upholding a decision by the Appeal Court. Are we seeing an erosion of all that has been gained by women fighting against patriarchal attitudes, merely in order to appease religious zealots?

But while the Solicitors’ Regulatory Authority has withdrawn its endorsement of the Law Society guidance, it remains on the LS website. The LS has ignored the protests from feminists and other human rights campaigner and instead embarked on a robust promotion of sharia, using supporters such as legal academic Maleiha Malik, solicitor Aina Khan and the Oxford-based Islamist Tariq Ramadan. SBS and OLfA have been joined by Gita Sahgal, director of the Centre for Secular Space, and Chris Moos, secretary of the London School of Economics student union Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, in continuing to campaign against the acceptance of sharia. As Maryam Namazie says: “There is no place for sharia in Britain’s legal system just as there is no place for it anywhere. Sharia is based on a dogmatic and regressive philosophy and a warped understanding of the concepts of equality and justice. The Law Society must immediately withdraw its shameful guidance.”

In the words of one woman, interviewed for the Equal and Free? report, “‘I’m speaking as a British Muslim — I would like to say that I feel terribly let down by the British state, with its schizophrenic response to the law, its own law, its abrogation of its responsibility to safeguard the rights of Muslim women.”