The secular law of the United Kingdom should protect the rights of people in all communities, and it should not be undermined or supplanted by any parallel religious system. People have the right to seek spiritual and religious advice. But misinformation and malpractice can risk religious rulings being imposed on vulnerable groups.
What’s the problem?
There are thought to be upwards of 100 sharia councils and tribunals operating in the United Kingdom, offering arbitration and mediation services, and dispensing religious rulings on marriage, child custody and divorce. These are not courts of law but there are concerns that Muslim women (especially those not born in the UK and/or unable to speak English) perceive them as having real legal authority.
Sharia is a system which leaves children vulnerable and discriminates openly against women, undermining their legal and political equality. Sharia Councils have been shown to have acted in ways contrary to the law and leaving women vulnerable to domestic abuse. As such, we argue that the state needs to better tackle the numerous problems and dangers the use of sharia councils brings with it.
To seek a religious divorce a woman must gain permission from these almost entirely male councils, and there are reports of women being denied this request even in cases where she had faced abuse.
If a woman is 'divorced' suddenly, or against her wishes, she can be left homeless and without any money or assets, because the 'marriage' has no legal force, giving her no rights or legal protections.
Protecting women's rights is the priority, but that isn't the only concern. The existence of these parallel legal systems poses a threat to common citizenship and undermines the integrity of secular law.
There is no easy answer to challenging the hold of sharia councils over these communities. The problem is not only one of supply, but also of demand. If there is no demand for sharia councils, the influence of these bodies will collapse. We believe the demand for sharia is best tackled in the education system as a part of citizenship education and this will be aided by anything that breaks down barriers between communities and reduces segregation.
What are we doing?
- We are founder members of the One Law for All Campaign which launched in 2008 to call on the UK Government to recognise that sharia and religious courts are arbitrary and discriminatory against women and children in particular and that citizenship and human rights are non-negotiable.
- We recently submitted evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into Sharia Councils, arguing that the secular system must not be undermined. We have also been supportive of efforts in Parliament to tackle the inherent gender inequality and discrimination promoted by religious tribunals such as sharia councils.
- We are also advocating for an information campaign to reach out to women and inform them of their rights in law. All schools, both in the state and independent sector, should be under a duty to promote understanding of citizenship and legal rights under UK law so that people – particularly Muslim women and girls – are aware of and able to access their legal rights and do not regard religious 'courts' as sources of genuine legal authority.
- In addition, we successfully campaigned for the withdrawal of a Law Society sharia succession practice note which sought to assist solicitors in drafting 'sharia compliant' wills, arguing that by publishing the guidance, the Law Society was issuing religious rather than legal advice and effectively legitimising sharia and encouraging discrimination.
- In 2018 we joined campaigners in signing a letter to the Ministry of Justice calling for the government to withdraw divorce guidance which encourages women from minority religious backgrounds to turn to religious 'courts', and for an urgent review into sharia and civil marriage and divorce laws and to guarantee access to justice for all".
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