Back in May, then-Home Secretary Theresa May announced what would be one of her last significant steps on the job: an independent inquiry into the uses – and alleged abuses – of Islamic "Sharia courts" in the UK.
In many ways, the news was a long time coming. Sharia courts have been legal in the UK as "mediation and arbitration bodies" since the Arbitration Act of 1996 and, along with the Orthodox Jewish Beth Din, have a mandate to oversee family disputes – particularly divorce. For a while, the growth of these types of bodies was accepted as an inevitability by many in the British establishment, from the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to Justice Secretary Jack Straw.
But in the last few years things have changed. Following a controversial undercover investigation by the BBC's Panorama, as well as a campaign by Baroness Cox and others against alleged violations of women's rights taking place in the country's Sharia councils, the tide seems to have turned. The NGO One Law for All – run by, among others, the Iranian-born activist and leftist Maryam Namazie – has long alleged that they contravene women's rights, and that they represent an extension of the hard-right project of political Islam to undermine secular law and divide communities.
"The greatest human rights violations against black and minority women are taking place in these courts," says Namazie over the phone. "From our perspective this is all part and parcel of the Islamist project, and you have many examples internationally to prove this. It's not just terrorism that is an issue for people in countries in the Middle East and North Africa, but also a sort of terrorism promoted by Sharia laws and violence against women."
Even proponents of the practice agree that reforms need to happen. Maulana Muhammad Shahid Raza, executive secretary of the Wembley-based Muslim Law (Shariah) Council UK told VICE that he welcomes the decision to launch an inquiry, and that arbitration bodies should only refer to themselves as "councils" and not "courts", as they have no statutory legal authority.
"There is a need for some sort of regulating the services of these Sharia councils in the country," he says. "Within the last five years or so, many, many Sharia councils have cropped up; a few of them are… doing things in a way which are not accepted. I know that some of the Sharia councils in this country are geographically in this country and ideologically in a different country, which we do not like, and which we would not accept or agree with at all."
While you'd assume that groups like One Law for All would welcome the news of an independent inquiry, many activists now plan to boycott it, arguing that, with its theological focus and emphasis on "best practice", it doesn't confront the root of the problem.
"What we're saying is that this is not a theological debate; this is not about moderate versus extreme forms of Sharia law – it's about women's rights, minority women's rights and their right to access justice," argues Namazie. "It needs to be judge-led, it needs to look at the wide variety of human rights violations that are taking place, whether it's being condoned by these courts or even promoted by these courts."
Getting a clear picture of the use of Sharia councils in the UK isn't always easy: for one thing, the debate has been dominated by the far-right. From the English Defence League and Britain First, to more mainstream groups like UKIP, the boogeyman of "Sharia law" has come to be used as proof by many on the right of some sinister Islamic conspiracy to ban bingo and real ale – and to set up a sinister parallel legal system that can contravene British law.
The right-wing connection has been such a problem that groups like One Law for All have had to officially distance themselves from organisations like the EDL with a report called "Enemies Not Allies", which called on activists to take greater care to avoid cooperation with Islamophobic groups.
It doesn't help that groups such as One Law for All haven't always sidestepped the more inflammatory members of the right-wing commentariat. Namazie has shared a platform with Douglas Murray, a Spectator columnist with a history of flirting with inflammatory racial politics. On top of this, criticism of arbitration councils are often framed in a critique of "multiculturalism" and of the "cultural relativism" of the left – catnip to the far-right.
That said, evidence gathered by grassroots campaigners is impossible to ignore. It's hard to pin down specific accusations by women against specific councils (many are afraid to speak out for fear of retribution from their communities), but human rights organisations point to numerous cases where Sharia councils have made getting a religious divorce – often from abusive husbands – harder for women, causing unnecessary psychological trauma as a result.
Proponents of these institutions argue that the opposite is true. Shahid Raza says that in immigrant communities, where marriages are not recognised by civil law in the UK, Sharia councils are the only recourse for women trying to escape troubled relationships.
"If the government or the judiciary provided the provision for the dissolution of the Islamic side of the marriages, within the mainstream system, I think 99 percent of the work of Sharia councils would come to an end," he argues. "It is an additional burden on the shoulder of communities to run Sharia councils."
Far from being weighted in favour of men, he argues, the councils he has worked on will often find themselves attracting the ire of the some 70 percent of husbands who refuse to accept divorces. "They will react and respond very angrily," he says. "Some of them will be branding us agents of America and Jews; some will say to us that we are kafirs, that we are not Muslims."
One organisation that disagrees with Raza is the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO), which has also heavily criticised the government's inquiry as a "farce" and has compiled numerous examples, gleaned from interviews with women, of abuses by courts.
"Patriarchy is a massive issue with all of the women that we're working with," argues Sara Browne, a campaign officer for the group. "The courts represent a massive problem for us: it's an unbalanced, dangerous system."
A report for the IKWRO – and submitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee – by clinical psychologist Dr Savin Bapir-Tardy, who interviewed dozens of women in their native languages about their experiences, details many cases where Sharia courts are alleged to have been enablers in the abuse of women. In evidence, she describes a "very religious" Kurdish patient of hers, diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), who had been a victim of female genital mutilation.
"She explained that she did not feel anything positive during sexual intercourse. Her husband accused her of withholding sex," she writes. "The 'Sharia court' told her that her husband's physical and verbal abuse was the result of her not fulfilling her wifely duties sexually."
In another case, a woman subject to financial and psychological abuse by her husband, with whom she had a child, was told by an arbitration council that she would lose her dowry and would be left without financial help.
"She was not informed by the religious arbitrator to seek advice on her financial rights under UK family law," writes Bapir-Tardy. "The religious arbitrators were effectively acting as a barrier to her understanding or accessing her rights under UK law. 'Sharia courts' use the power of women's faith to gain a psychological hold over them through guilt. This guilt is used to make any woman who challenges the orders of the religious arbitrators feel as if they are the perpetrator and are responsible for destroying the family's reputation."
With the inquiry set to release its findings by the end of next year, but with major activist groups set to the boycott the panel, it's hard to see what it will actually achieve. With a focus on the theological angle of these arbitration councils and not on the complex legal arguments made by both sides, what seems most likely to happen is that it will become what the government seemed to want it to be in the first place: a politically expedient non-solution to a complex issue.
The ones who will really suffer, of course, will be the communities where Sharia councils are prevalent, whether they're the community leaders asking for civil recognition of Islamic marriages, or, much more distressingly, the vulnerable women stuck between several bad options.
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