by Tom Olago
The Sharia court system is the bane from which Muslim women are experiencing so much discrimination and suffering. Yet the United Kingdom, as well as many other Western nations, permit these parallel courts with laws that favor men above women. This occurs in virtually every way that relates to marriage, family, finance, inheritance and social life.
According to the Daily Mail (Online), the court system was designed to help religious Muslims settle financial, family and marital disputes according to the principles of their faith, as laid down in the 7th century. The article also stated that there are currently about 85 such Islamic courts.
Many Sharia court system supporters believe such courts provide a unique and valuable service to the Muslim community by helping its members stay true to Sharia law, a legal system derived from the Koran as well as the rulings of Islamic scholars, known as fatwas.
Recent years have also reportedly seen growing concerns that Britains Sharia courts are fostering extremism, undermining human rights and creating a parallel justice system whose basic principles conflict with the law of the land. To this end, Home Secretary Theresa May recently promised a review of Sharia courts to ensure they support ‘British values’.
In April of 2015, the Gatestone Institutes Soeren Kern wrote a report on this. Months later in December of 2015, not much has changed for the better if current reports are anything to go by.
Kerns report showed how the increasing influence of Sharia law in Britain today was undermining the fundamental principle that there must be equality for all British citizens under a single law of the land, and concluded by calling on the British government to launch a judge-led inquiry to “determine the extent to which discriminatory Sharia law principles are being applied within the UK.”
This call on the government to act was based on the research findings that suggested that Muslim women across Britain were being systematically oppressed, abused and discriminated against by Sharia law courts that treat women as second-class citizens.
A key supporting document, “A Parallel World: Confronting the Abuse of Many Muslim Women in Britain Today,” was authored by Baroness Caroline Cox, and warned against the spiraling proliferation of Islamic tribunals in the United Kingdom. Cox, is a cross-bench member of the British House of Lords and one of the leading defenders of women’s rights in the UK.
It’s incredible considering how two parallel and often opposing legal systems should be allowed to operate in a civilized Western society that has its own long-held and tested sovereign national laws.
This dual legal system has reportedly been made possible through the U.K Arbitration Act of 1996 which allows parties to resolve certain civil disputes according to Sharia principles in such a way that the decision can be enforced in British courts.
According to the Cox report, however, many Muslim bodies are using the Arbitration Act to support the claim that they are able to make legally binding decisions for members of the Muslim community when in fact the law limits their role to that of being a mediator to help reach an agreement. “The mediator is not a judge or an arbitrator who imposes a decision,” the report states.
The report shows how Sharia courts often confuse the concept of arbitration with mediation. In the former, both parties agree to submit their dispute to a mutually agreeable third party to make a decision, whereas, with mediation, in which the two parties voluntarily use a third party to help them reach an agreement that is acceptable to both sides.
As a result, Muslim women, who may lack knowledge of both the English language and their rights under British law, are often pressured by their families to use Sharia courts.
Some of the resultant key disadvantages experienced by Muslim women are as follows:
” These courts often coerce them to sign an agreement to abide by their decisions, which are imposed and viewed as legal judgments;
” Refusal to settle a dispute in a Sharia forum could lead to threats and intimidation, or being ostracized and labeled a disbeliever;
” There is a particular concern that women face pressure to withdraw allegations of domestic violence after they make them. Several women’s groups say they are often reluctant to go to the authorities because they cannot trust police officers within the community not to betray the girls to their abusing families;
” Even in cases where Muslim tribunals work “in tandem” with police investigations, abused women often withdraw their complaints to the police, while Sharia judges let the husbands go unpunished.
” Most Sharia courts, when dealing with divorce, do so only in a religious sense. They cannot grant a civil divorce; they simply grant a religious divorce in accordance with Sharia law. This creates a very serious problem: women who are married in Islamic ceremonies but are not officially married under English law can suffer grave disadvantages because they lack legal protection. Whats more, they can be unaware that their marriage is not officially recognized by English law in the first place.
” In Islam, a husband does not have to follow the same process as the wife when seeking a talaq (Islamic divorce). He merely has to say “I divorce you” three times, whereas the wife must meet various conditions and pay a fee.
” There is an increasing rise in polygamy within Muslim families and again the women who are involved are not in a position to be able to challenge the situation or get any form of justice. They find it difficult to obtain any maintenance as the marriages are not registered legally. Polygamy is used to control first wives who are told that if they are a problem the man has the Islamic right to take another wife. Sometimes just one of the marriages is registered leaving one wife without any legal protections.
For these reasons, the report also called on the government to support Baroness Cox’s Private Members’ Bill the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill which would “create a new criminal offense criminalizing any person who purports to legally adjudicate upon matters which ought to be decided by criminal or family courts.”
Among other restrictions, the bill aims to combat discrimination by, among other restrictions, prohibiting Sharia courts from a) treating the evidence of a man as worth more than the evidence of a woman; b) proceeding on the assumption that the division of an estate between male and female children on intestacy must be unequal; or c) proceeding on the assumption that a woman has fewer property rights than a man.
The law would also place a duty on public bodies to ensure that women in polygamous households, or those who have had a religious marriage, are made aware of their legal position and relevant legal rights under British law.
Although the Cox bill “already has strong support from across the political spectrum in the House of Lords as well as from Muslim women’s groups and other organizations concerned with the suffering of vulnerable women,” concerns were expressed about the extent of support that the government would provide.
Political interests and the fears of the cost of not being considered ‘politically correct’ or being thought of as ‘Islamophobic’ continue to threaten the valuable impact that political support could lend to the campaign.
The U.K Daily Mails report, Guy Adams gave several accounts of women who had visited Islamic Sharia judges to seek redress for various serious marital issues in some of these courts.
The proceedings were documented in a forthcoming book authored by Dutch academic Machteld Zee. The book titled ‘Choosing Sharia’ claims to offer an unprecedented insight into the secret world of Britains so-called Sharia courts.
In the book is a detailed description of events that Zee claims took place over three days in 2013, when she was allowed to observe goings-on in two of Britains busiest Sharia courts or councils.
The 31-year-old academic, who describes herself as an atheist, was permitted to observe hearings at the Islamic Sharia Council (ISC), the countrys busiest Sharia court, based in a converted corner shop in Leyton, East London. She concluded they are condemning Muslim women to ‘marital captivity’ and failing properly to protect victims of domestic violence.
During one of many ISC cases, Zee claims that she observed a male judge dealing with an abusive husband. The man was not referred to the police but instead told to put things right by swearing on the Koran not to mistreat his wife any more.
In another, Zee saw a judge declare that divorces granted in British courts are worthless to proper Muslims. She says the vast majority of the cases involved women seeking to divorce absent husbands, due to the fact that under Islamic law, men only need to say ‘I divorce you’ three times to separate from their wives – whereas women need the sanction of clerics, whom they must pay for the privilege.
The Islamic Sharia Council, however, took issue with many of Zees conclusions, and vigorously disputed her version of events with regard to several of the cases she witnessed. However independent research seems to corroborate Zees private findings, including the Islamic texts themselves that guide the judges and inform their decisions.
Children too, are adversely affected by such rulings. For instance, the late Shaykh Sayyid Matawalli ad-Darsh, who founded the ISC (which is a registered charity) in 1982 was quoted in one documented lecture saying that ‘there is no minimum age’ for marriage because ‘the guardian of children, both male and female, has the right to conduct a marriage agreement on their behalf’.
Overall, the report includes excerpts of testimonies of more than a dozen Muslim women who have suffered abuse and injustice at the hands of Sharia courts in Britain. One woman said: “I feel betrayed by Britain. I came here to get away from this and the situation is worse here than in the country I escaped from.”