Sharia councils treat Muslim women unfairly, MPs told

Image caption,
Zlakha Ahmed, left, and Shaista Gohir made recommendations for improvements to the councils

Sharia councils discriminate against Muslim women when they are seeking a religious divorce, MPs have been told.

The Home Affairs Committee heard evidence about the councils, which use Islamic law to grant divorces.

Maryam Namazi, of One Law for All, said the council process was "tantamount to abuse", with women told to stay silent and domestic violence justified.

Khola Hasan, a woman who sits on a UK Sharia council, said they offered women a service not available elsewhere.

'Limping marriages'

At the hearing, witnesses explained that even after a civil divorce, a family or community might not accept the marriage was over until a religious divorce had taken place.

MPs also heard that between 30 and 40% of Muslim marriages were religious only, meaning the women did not have the same rights as wives in a civil marriage.

Zlakha Ahmed, founder of Rotherham-based domestic violence organisation Apna Haq, said that without Sharia councils most of the women she had helped would still be in "limping marriages".

She said their husband might be living with another woman, while they did the housework and were treated as a slave.

But asked if the councils were discriminatory, she nodded, saying: "There are certain behaviours that need challenging."

Educating communities

Another witness - Shaista Gohir, chair of the Muslim Women's Network UK - called on the government to make civil marriage compulsory before Islamic marriage, and fine imams who contravened this.

She said her organisation was trying to encourage more Muslim women to get a civil marriage.

Ms Gohir said it was then a case of educating Muslim communities that a civil divorce meant a religious divorce, which would eventually make Sharia councils redundant.

She advised against sudden abolition of the councils, saying it would drive the problem underground, push up Sharia divorce charges and reduce transparency.

In the meantime, she called for councils to:

  • Stop questioning women in a way that made them feel guilty and asking for evidence that could not always be provided
  • Involve more women in decision-making
  • Improve transparency, including by listing members of the council

She also suggested that the government should draw up a list of those councils which followed best practice.

Image caption,
Khola Hasan is one of very few female scholars who sits on a Sharia council in the UK

Khola Hasan, who also gave evidence, told the BBC that the UK's estimated 30 Sharia councils were giving Muslim women a service they could not get anywhere else.

"They cannot go to English law for a religious divorce because they don't have a civil marriage," she said.

She insisted the system was transparent and not arbitrary.

"I think there are backstreet Sharia councils that are operating without any kind of policy and procedure and those are problematic and that's what we do need to be looking at," she said.

"We cannot tar all Sharia councils with the same brush and say they are all misogynistic and unfair to women."

The committee hearing is one of two government inquiries into Sharia law.

In an open letter, more than 100 Muslim women have complained that the inquiries are aimed at banning - not reforming - Sharia councils.

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