British Sharia Councils & Women

Susanna Lukács on February 20, 2023

Concerns about Sharia in America have largely faded from public conversation. But the role of Sharia councils and how they address women in British Muslim communities are still of public concern in Britain.

Sharia councils claim they help Muslim women get a religious divorce, but this legal system leaves women vulnerable placing undue restrictions on their lives leaving them without any legal protection.

Sharia means “the correct path” in Arabic and refers to the divine counsel that one must follow to lead a moral life. Derived from the Quran and Hadith – thousands of sayings attributed to Prophet Mohammad – Sharia not only includes law, but religious observance like fasting, prayer, and ritual practices. It is jurisprudence and law composed by jurists in the classical period of Islam, and interestingly most Muslim societies still abide by the rulings of classical jurisprudence.

Frequently mislabeled as Sharia courts, Sharia councils have an unfavorable reputation in the United Kingdom, and exist in order to provide rulings in accordance with Sharia.

Almost all the Sharia councils, first appearing in the UK in the 1980s, were established to enable Islamic divorces for Muslim women who seek the counsel of an elder when the husband doesn’t consent to the breakup of the marriage. Since there have been cuts to legal aid, making divorces more expensive, the number of married couples turning to Sharia councils are on the rise, posing a serious threat to Muslim women. Sharia councils are accused of operating a “parallel legal system” in the UK, but their rulings have no legal validity, nonetheless they do act in a decision-making capacity. Currently, there is no reliable statistic on the number of Sharia councils in England and Wales: estimates vary between 80-85 and they are growing in number as British Muslims seek Sharia councils to  settle their disputes.

Across the past few decades serious concerns have arisen about the cultural and religious practices in Muslim communities. The Independent Review into the Application of Sharia Law in England and Wales issued by Britain’s Home Department in February of 2018 was purposefully set up because sharia councils were “deemed discriminating against women.” Also, “the rise of extremism is seen as evidence of a lack of social and political integration within many parts of the UK”.

The review further elaborates that the observance of sharia keeps Muslims marginalized, dislocated from British citizenship and civic life. There are multifarious religio-cultural impediments within some Muslim societies that obstruct individual freedom and rights. Moreover, “moral agency” – especially in relation to women – for their freedoms are frequently “overlooked” and “denied”. A key finding of the review was that a significant number of Muslim couples do not civilly register their religious marriages. As a result, some Muslim women cannot obtain a civil divorce.

Impelled by fears that sharia councils are discriminatory, then Home Secretary Theresa May launched an independent review in May of 2016 as part of the government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy. The strategy notes that many civilians in England and Wales observe religious practices, and may gain advantage from their council. However, there is evidence indicating that some sharia councils operate in a discriminatory and objectionable manner, legitimizing forced marriage and issuing divorces that are “unfair” to women.

May rightly noted, based on the review’s observations and findings, that “a number of women have reportedly been victims of what appear to be discriminatory decisions taken by sharia councils, and that is a significant concern. There is only one rule of law in [Britain], which provides rights and security for every citizen”.

In addition, the Casey Review initiated by Dame Louise Casey made similar claims, stating that sharia councils “supported the values of extremists, condoned wife-beating, ignored marital rape and allowed forced marriages”. Preceding such concerns, Baroness Cox, crossbench member of the British House of Lords, introduced the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill to the House of Lords on May 10, 2012. The bill addressed discrepancies as regards  sharia arbitration, acknowledging that some elements of sharia are incompatible with UK secular law.

The bill was set to prevent Muslim women being “hoodwinked” into thinking that sharia councils have jurisdiction, enabling the British court to ignore a negotiated agreement if there was evidence that one party’s consent was not veritable. The bill would have allowed a decision from the sharia council to be retracted if the woman was pressured into using the sharia council. Most importantly, the bill sought to remedy women’s lack of protection as regards unregistered marriages “by placing a duty on public bodies in ensuring that women are not misled as regards the legal status of their marriage”, bringing about further provisions in preventing sharia councils from ruling in a discriminatory manner.

Cox’s six-year campaign for British Muslim women drew to a close in 2016. Her private member’s bill was scheduled to receive its first debate in the House of Commons, after failing to pass through Lords four times since first introduced in 2011. Cox’s bill was foiled five times consecutively to enter the statute book. Government obstruction regarding Cox’s bill became discernible in 2012 when it received its first debate in Lords.

Lord Gardiner, representing the government, acknowledged the bill’s honorable objectives in supporting the rights of women. Nonetheless, he noted that the government had apprehensions, expressing that the bill was “not the best way forward” in addressing the problems concerning British Muslim women. Also, the bill prohibited arbitration “according to religious principles” diametrically opposing the Arbitration Act of 1996.

Grave concerns with sharia councils will persist. There are impediments to their elimination at this time. Perhaps, in due course, governments will be able to phase out sharia councils.

“It is likely that a large number of cases concerning the position of Muslim women under Islamic law never come before the ordinary courts or the European Court of Human Rights because women are under enormous pressure from their families and their communities to comply with the demands of the informal religious courts,” Conservative MP John Howell stated in parliament on May 2, 2019.

Howell further added that a huge number of Muslims do not have a marriage recognized under British Law. Those women who do manage to get a civil divorce, but not a religious divorce, find it difficult to remarry. Reviews and reports cite numerous examples of how Muslim women are pressured into mediation, and greater weight being given to husbands’ accounts, sometimes women even being required to pay back their dowry.

Having read the recommendations of the Home Department’s review into sharia councils, it would be most agreeable to initiate a legislative change to the Marriage Act of 1949 bringing Islamic marriage in line with Christian and Jewish marriage in the eyes of the law, also making it a legal requirement for Islamic marriages to be registered under British civil law.

Another laudable recommendation would be to suggest the gradual reduction of the use and need for sharia councils. The attainment of the latter may perhaps only be achieved through education and more government involvement in the lives of marginalized religious groups.

  1. Comment by David on February 20, 2023 at 7:10 am

    Islam, like Orthodox Judaism, and unlike Christianity, is very legalistic. Similar situations exist in the US among Hassidic women. They may get a civil divorce, but without their husband granting them the biblical bill of divorcement, they can not religiously remarry. These are sometimes called “chained women.” There are cases where. the husband demands money from the woman for the divorce. Many disapprove of such behavior and there is at least one rabbi who goes about searching out husbands and persuading them to do the right thing. Curiously, when the bill is obtained, the woman cannot simply pick it up. The rabbi drops the paper and the woman must catch it midair between her palms.

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