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Newsline 4 November 2016

This week we were delighted to unveil the portrait bust of our founder, Charles Bradlaugh MP, at a reception in Parliament. We offer our sincere thanks to all who have donated to our ongoing 150th anniversary appeal to make this possible. The bust will now take its rightful place in a prominent position inside the Palace of Westminster.

Events this week have shown the importance of continuing Bradlaugh's work.

As a victim of the UK's blasphemy law, abolishing it was one of Bradlaugh's primary objectives, something we were finally able to achieve in 2008. But the hounding and suspension of Louis Smith for mocking Islam shows the danger of blasphemy laws returning by the backdoor.

Meanwhile the Government continues to press ahead with the expansion of faith schools in the face of overwhelming public opposition to religious discrimination, and it's vital a secular voice speaks out against this retrograde step.

If you're not already a member you can help us continue Bradlaugh's work – on education, free speech, and human rights – by joining us today.

Protecting women’s rights is the priority, but that isn’t the only legitimate concern about sharia

Protecting women’s rights is the priority, but that isn’t the only legitimate concern about sharia

Opinion | Thu, 03 Nov 2016

Gender inequality isn't the only problem with sharia councils, and non-Muslims have every right to object to the foundation of a parallel legal system in the UK, writes Benjamin Jones.

The discrimination against women inherent in sharia is its most objectionable feature. But when considering the impact of sharia councils in the UK, women's rights are not the only consideration, and the debate is not one for Muslims to have solely among themselves, excluding all others with accusations of 'Islamophobia'.

These councils have immense cultural influence in many communities, and by this fact alone they subvert our legal system and the principle of one law for all, whether or not they have any formal legal standing.

If sharia councils operated fully within UK law, they would still pose a profound cultural challenge, and even if they made no pretence at legal power, non-Muslims would still have every right to object to their malign influence.

Even if every single participant in a sharia council was there voluntarily without coercion or social pressure, and even if every ruling and process complied with equality and human rights standards, non-Muslims would still have every right to protest against the fragmentation of our legal system.

How can there be integration if our secular legal system is openly rejected? Putting aside, for a moment, the many implications of sharia for Muslim women, the spread of these councils reeks of separatism – and an Islamist desire to state Islam's power in the physical and political realm.

Muslim women can be powerful advocates for challenging the misogyny inherent in sharia, dominated in its entirety by male judges, but the rest of society has a perfectly legitimate interest in resisting the challenge to our common citizenship and legal system that a now sprawling sharia system poses.

Some say that Muslim women are being patronised by these concerns and by the suggestion that some women don't understand the difference between sharia councils and British law, but it is demonstrably true that many Muslim women don't: The vast number of Muslim women who have only religious 'marriages' is a testament to this. Many of these women wrongly believe their nikah (religious marriage) is legally recognised.

Countless women find themselves penniless, homeless or severely impoverished because of this terrible misunderstanding when they are 'divorced' from their husbands, only to find out that their 'marriage' was legally non-existent.

So it is not patronising to say that some, perhaps a great many Muslim women, do not know the real law from the 'justice' dispensed by local figures they respect.

How many cases of women abused by their 'husbands' never see the light of day because they are 'resolved' by a sharia council and the women think this to be a valid and definitive legal process? How many women are made poor because they have no legal marriage, and no legal rights if their husbands shun them? We can't ever know for sure.

It is not patronising to state these facts or for wider society to have concerns about our fellow citizens.

And society as a whole has an interest in preserving the supremacy of UK law and human rights.

The establishment of quasi-legal organs and the founding of a new legal system in communities across Britain erodes at our common citizenship.

It is, in fact, the foundation of an entirely separate civilization and one of the most blatant manifestations of the 'parallel lives' that ethnically and religiously divided communities across the UK are living.

Shaista Gohir of the Muslim Women's Network, complaining about the approach of a parliamentary inquiry into how sharia operates, said: "There are people who are anti-faith, particularly anti-Islam, who are using women's rights as a guise… anti-faith activists, including feminists, and I'm a feminist myself, who should know better in terms of speaking to Muslim women and finding out what it is that they want."

Gohir said it was a "myth" that sharia was becoming a parallel legal system.

During a Home Affairs Select Committee hearing on sharia, Nusrat Ghani MP said that the UK risked one day becoming like India, where different minorities have their own legal system, and she is right to warn of this. Though this is nowhere near the formal legal situation, it is, arguably, becoming the de facto situation with respect to elements of family law like marriage and divorce.

As Maryam Namazie told the Committee, sharia councils "do call themselves courts" and do call themselves judges. "It doesn't have the force of the law but they do imply that they are the force of the law." The Muslim women who believe their Islamic marriages are legally real is proof enough of this essential point.

This discussion isn't just for Muslims to have within parameters that Muslims find comfortable. As with sharia, as with counter-extremism, Muslim communities can't shut themselves off from society and try to solve these problems internally. Nor should anybody have confidence in their ability to do so.

The effort to silence non-Muslim (and ex-Muslim) critics of sharia, by tarring them as 'Islamophobic', as Naz Shah MP did during the hearing, or calling them "anti-faith" or patronising, does nothing to solve the problem.

Raheel Raza said that this trend of limiting the discussion "is of great concern and this is happening all over the West - liberal, secular voices are being silenced."

Wider society won't put up with it.

Saudi women’s rights activist arrested – days after Saudi Arabia returned to Human Rights Council

Saudi women’s rights activist arrested – days after Saudi Arabia returned to Human Rights Council

Opinion | Thu, 03 Nov 2016

A leading women's rights activist, Mariam Nassir Al Oteebi, has been arrested in Saudi Arabia and languishes in prison, just days after the country was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council, writes David van Rooyen.

Mariam Nassir Al Oteebi had been playing a leading role protesting against the Saudi male guardianship system prior to her arrest on 1 November.

The system dictates that every woman, regardless of her age, is required to have a male 'guardian'. In the first instance this will be her father or husband, but may also be a brother or son. A woman will often need to obtain the permission of her guardian before she can undertake a number of basic activities including travelling, studying abroad, working, accessing healthcare, or getting married.

Most social media activists in Saudi tend to use pseudonymous accounts to hide their true identities and location for fear of persecution. But Mariam had bravely revealed her identity in her Twitter profile picture by displaying both her passport and national ID card.

Ostensibly, Mariam was arrested because her father reported her to the police for 'parental disobedience' (a criminal offence in Saudi). Mariam had initially gone to the police herself claiming that her two brothers had verbally and physically abused her. Her father then ordered Mariam to withdraw her complaint to the police. When she refused, he reported her himself, which subsequently led to her arrest.

Mariam's location following her arrest was initially unknown, although with public pressure mounting on the Saudi regime a government official finally made a statement on the evening of 2 November announcing that she had been taken to a 'care house' in the city of Buraydah (located approximately 200km north-west of Riyadh). 'Care houses', in Saudi, are effectively prisons for persons under the age of 30.

The guardianship system means that the authorities will not release women from prison until their legal guardians come to collect them. Thus, it seems as if Mariam will stay in prison until her father – the very person who called for her arrest – collects her.

Renewed support for the abolition of this system gathered pace after Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a 79-page report titled 'Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia's Male Guardianship System' in July. Following the report around 15,000 Saudis signed an online petition calling on the government to end male guardianship.

In the weeks prior to her arrest, Mariam appealed to her 'tribe' via Twitter for help. (Saudi society is organized into 'tribes' or 'clans' made up of extended family members). Her tweets read:

"Hello brother, I am a member of your tribe and I swear to God… I never thought I would use my actual name and real picture… but I am doing so because of the great struggle with my brother… he threatened me, insulted me and beat me, and all of this is registered with the police.

"I need your help as my sisters and I are suffering. I've lost hope in life. All I dream is to abolish the male guardianship system so my brother stops assaulting me... You cannot imagine the harm that has been done to me, please guide me to anyone who can help me."

Her tribe not only ignored her pleas but announced – on their official Twitter account – that Mariam's account is run by "the enemies of our nation".

The male guardianship system – which effectively renders adult women legal minors – is considered by Human Rights Watch and many women's rights activists in Saudi to be the most significant impediment to realizing women's rights in the country.

Mariam's story comes just days after Saudi Arabia was re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

A new hashtag, #IStandWithMariam, has now started to circulate on Twitter. It's vital that voices from around the world speak out to put pressure on the Saudi government to help secure her freedom.

David van Rooyen is a doctoral researcher at Durham University. Follow him on Twitter @DavidvanRooyen. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and may not represent the views of the NSS.

In defence of laïcité: our lives depend on it

In defence of laïcité: our lives depend on it

Read Maryam Namazie's speech on accepting the International Secularism (Laicite) Prize from the Comité Laïcité République.

NSS Speaks Out

We've been quoted extensively in the media commenting on the suspension of Louis Smith for mocking Islam. We were quoted in the Guardian, spoke to TalkRADIO, Radio Ulster, BBC Radio 2, BBC Three Counties and LBC. We also appeared on BBC Radio London on the need for secular policy-making. Our comment on the Ashers Bakery case appeared in the Irish Times and Huffington Post.


British Muslims for Secular Democracy is looking for a Director of Media, Outreach and Lobbying: if you are creative, proactive and dynamic with good communication skills, please apply. See the full job advert here.

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