In a time of rising Islamophobic sentiment, Muslim women find themselves at the center of a heated debate in the U.K. concerning Sharia councils as the House of Commons home affairs committee hears evidence this month in its lengthy inquiry into Sharia council practices in the country. The inquiry is expected to publish findings in early 2017.
Arguments about the role of Sharia courts play in the U.K. have simmered for some years, with no easy solutions on offer. Right-wing conservatives and some feminist activists have united behind the view that the system too often puts women at risk. But on the other side of the argument stand many Muslim women who worry that a complete ban on the practice could inadvertently endanger the women it’s designed to protect.
Sharia councils are committees or individual scholars, normally attached to a mosque, who provide guidance on Islamic rule and often settle disputes. For many muslims, civil marriage is considered a formality — secondary to the Islamic marriage. If a marriage breaks down, people often turn first to sharia councils to settle the matter in a religiously based divorce.
These conflicts make up the majority of cases overseen by Sharia councils. Although the councils are not legally binding, their power outweighs the legal system within cultural and religious contexts.
A worrying proportion of women — some estimates suggest as high as 80 percent — are forgoing a civil marriage completely, as a result. Thereby losing out on protections that legal divorce courts provide.
These women often have no other option but to turn to Sharia councils as the only means to escape an abusive marriage.
Although there are no exact figures for how many sharia councils exist in the U.K — estimates range between 30 and 80 — standards vary hugely, with councils ranging from organized committees attached to larger mosques to a single scholar holed up in a drafty office.
“Before we got married, my husband had a non-Muslim girlfriend. His family thought if he got married, he would end it, but he went straight back to her. When I went to seek help with a Sharia divorce, it was just one scholar,” Salma Shah, one muslim woman impacted by Sharia councils, told VICE News. “He asked me personal questions about our relationship which was very degrading and made it sound like it was my fault. He also said I should consider encouraging my husband to take his girlfriend as a second wife.”
Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK), a campaigning charity that champions women’s rights said that issues arising from Sharia divorces make up the bulk of calls to their helpline.
Yet, they believe the wholesale banning of Sharia council’s would be equally harmful. Earlier this month, 100 Muslim women in concert with MWNUK urged the committee to consider their perspective in the ongoing matter, and warned that the complete closure of Sharia councils “would result in Muslim women being trapped in abusive marriages and drive divorce services underground, leading to even less transparency and more discrimination.”
The letter called for a major overhaul of the current system, and suggested that more women participate in the work of Sharia councils.
“If they were shut down, Muslim women would still want to get their Islamic divorce. This would drive the service underground with less transparency and more discrimination, Shaista Gohir from MWNUK told VICE News. “Though some scholars argue that a civil divorce should count as an Islamic one, this hasn’t been widely accepted yet within Muslim communities.”
Gohir believes that the current debate marginalizes the voices of the people most affected by the issue — Muslim women.
“Secular activists, most of whom mean well, think they are helping Muslim women by advocating abolishment, but in taking this action, women would find it harder to get divorced,” Gohir said. “Everyone is talking about Muslim women and what is best for them, but Muslim women’s voices have been marginalized.”
Still, others insist that Sharia councils create a parallel legal system which, in some cases, condones forced marriage and domestic violence.
Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters told VICE News: “In many cases, women have managed to escape domestic abuse when they turn to religious arbitration, and have been forced to return or go into mediation with their abuser. They have managed against great odds to escape, only to be told they are not behaving like decent women by leaving.”
Some women who use the Sharia councils have given the inquiry a cautious welcome. Ayesha Khan from London told VICE News: “Even though legally I am divorced, it is not enough for me. If you have an Islamic marriage, you need an Islamic divorce. It feels like a half divorce otherwise. Sharia councils have a purpose but they need to be reformed and they need to treat women with respect.”