The British government has launched an investigation into Sharia courts in the U.K., following sustained criticism from rights groups over their treatment of women. The Home Office said an independent panel will examine whether the courts are acting in a "discriminatory and unacceptable way," legitimizing forced marriage and issuing unfair divorce settlements.
The panel, announced in May, will be chaired by Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and Inter-religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. It also includes a selection of family lawyers, a former high court judge and several imams.
"At a time when there is so much focus on Muslims in the U.K., this will be a wide-ranging, timely and thorough review as to what actually happens in Sharia councils," Siddiqui said when the independent review was announced.
More than 30 Islamic courts or councils operate in Britain, run by imams who offer advice on family matters and issue divorce certificates in line with Islamic law. Under the Arbitration Act, consenting adults can use these councils to resolve civil or commercial disputes as long as any ruling doesn't conflict with U.K. law. Supporters of the courts say they are used on a voluntary basis and are not intended to replace the British legal system.
However, rights activists claim women are being unfairly treated under what amounts to a parallel legal system, which offers preferential treatment to men. They say the women who are most vulnerable to discrimination tend to be from isolated or marginalized communities in Britain. Many are recent arrivals who do not speak the language or know their rights under British law.
"A woman's testimony is worth half that of a man under Sharia," says activist Maryam Namazie, who has long campaigned for the courts to be shut down. "Sharia judges are also on record as saying there is no such thing as marital rape."
Namazie is collecting signatures for a letter to the British Home Office complaining that the inquiry will be limited unless the focus is shifted from religious debate about Sharia, and instead put squarely on the treatment of women.
"This is not a theological issue," she says. "It is about basic human rights."
The argument against Sharia courts is bolstered by evidence collected by Elham Manea, a Yemeni-Swiss academic and author, whose latest book, Women and Sharia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the U.K., examines the treatment of women under the system in Britain.
Manea spent four years traveling around country visiting Sharia institutions, speaking to those involved and researching thousands of cases. In her book, she describes decisions made in British Sharia councils as "totalitarian" and says they are more extreme than the courts in some parts of Pakistan. One example she gives is that of a woman who was forced to marry her cousin in Pakistan and then raped on her wedding night. On returning to the U.K., she asked for an annulment of the marriage but her claim was dismissed outright by the Sharia court.
"They did not care that she was forced to marry. They did not care that she is being raped in marriage; they do not see that as rape," Manea writes.
She says women who come into contact with the courts in the U.K. tend to fall into three categories. There are those who seek a religious divorce because they believe – or they are told – a civil divorce is not enough to separate them from their husbands. Then there are women who were married outside the U.K. – often by force – and believe their marriage is not recognized in Britain. The third category is women whose marriages are not made official under British law and therefore their only option is to seek a religious separation.
In all cases, Manea says, women have more rights than they realize and the problem is mostly a matter of education and access to information.
"We need to ask what type of law is being used here," she says.
While some courts Manea visited were less conservative than others, she says that overall they represent a worldview that encourages male guardianship over women. Fathers decide when and whom their daughter should marry; imams allow men to take very young brides; husbands are allowed to force sex on their wives; and women have to fight for the right to get a divorce.
"When human rights are violated with impunity, then this sort of arbitration is not something we should consider acceptable," Manea says. "I don't think having two systems is an adequate solution to multicultural societies."
But not everyone shares Namazie's and Manea's criticisms of the Sharia system in Britain.
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a moderate Muslim group trying to foster better relationships with non-Muslims, says Namazie's views are extreme and misrepresentative. He said the government investigation is anti-Islamic: "The government wants to criminalize conservative Islamic thought."
Shafiq notes that no review is scheduled to look into arbitration in other religious communities, such as the Jewish Beth Din, a court system that has the power to settle civil disputes.
Sharia councils are simply available to Muslims as a means of guidance on Islamic law, he said. English-born Shafiq said there is no widespread abuse of women under the British Sharia system and that many women willingly seek out the council of imams to end abusive marriages. He says Sharia has been demonized in the media because it is associated with countries that use the law to enforce punishments such as stoning to death or chopping off hands.
"We are very patriotic, we are glad we live in a country where there is rule of law and everyone is equal," Shafiq says. "But we should be free to follow Islamic principles about how we live our lives and other issues that don't affect secular communities."
A recent survey carried out by the research agency ICM found 23 percent of British Muslims want Sharia law in the U.K. The poll also found many British Muslims feel a strong connection to the U.K. but hold views that differ from the general population on several issues, including women's rights.
Of those questioned, 88 percent said Britain was a good place for Muslims to live and 78 percent said they would like to integrate into British life on most things – apart from Islamic schooling and some laws.
However, 31 percent said it was completely acceptable for a Muslim man to have more than one wife. And 39 percent said a Muslim wife should "always obey her husband." Just 5 percent of the general population agreed.
Flora Bagenal is a British journalist and film maker. This article originally appeared on Women & Girls Hub, and you can find the original here. For important news about the issues that impact female populations in the developing world, you can sign up to the Women & Girls Hub email list.