Today, 1 November, the Commons Home Affairs Committee begins taking evidence on its inquiry into sharia councils. Also today, the Muslim Women’s Network UK has issued an open letter on that inquiry and the parallel investigation being conducted by the Government.
The signatories urge caution and ask the two inquiries to prioritise the voices of Muslim women. Shaista Gohir OBE, Chair of the Network – who will be appearing before the Committee – said that two-thirds of the signatories to the letter knew someone who had used a sharia divorce service, a quarter had used one themselves and others want the option should they need it:
“Despite sometimes-traumatic experiences, most Muslim women do not want sharia councils to be shut down and instead want them to raise their standards. They also want the Government to ensure there is accountability and strengthen civil law so Muslim women are less reliant on sharia councils for divorce, which would make most of them naturally redundant in the future anyway … Solutions could include making civil marriage compulsory prior to a religious marriage as not all Muslim women are in legally recognised marriages … The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 could be amended too, so it includes Muslim women as it currently only applies to Jewish women. This would remedy the unbalanced bargaining power of the husband in some divorce cases where there is pressure to agree to unfair custodial and financial demands during the civil divorce in return for not contesting a religious divorce. The judge would be able to withhold finalising the civil divorce until the woman receives her religious divorce from the husband.”
She suggests, in short, that closing sharia councils could merely trap Muslim women in abusive marriages and drive divorce services underground, leading to even less transparency and more discrimination.
There is evidently a problem here – but it’s by no means a simple issue.