How Can UK Law Help Islamic Sharia Councils Promote Gender Equality?

By Jenn Selby, Freelance News Editor 27 Mar 2019

An Islamic scholar has warned against the increasing emergence of “one-man” Sharia councils in the UK, some of whom they claim discriminate against Muslim women.

The councils, the scholar told The Times, are wholly unregulated and often run from the backs of shops, living rooms and even via the post.

Sharia councils offer important support and advice on Islamic rulings, mainly regarding divorce, within communities. Most of their clients are women seeking to dissolve their Islamic marriage.

However, according to an independent review commissioned by the Home Office last year, several Sharia bodies of varying sizes “engage in practices which are discriminatory to women”.

One reason for this could be that Islamic law allows men to divorce their wives simply by declaring it. Women, however, must seek permission to divorce a husband from an Islamic scholar – a process that can be costly and of dubious quality.

The Council of Europe further warned that many Sharia councils in the UK have no “transparency or accountability”.

Problematic Cases And Risk Assessments

Whether a one-man outfit or a body overseen by multiple scholars, the service many Sharia councils offer women is often without formal procedure or due process. This is particularly problematic in cases of domestic violence or abuse, where knowledge of public service referrals and risk assessment is key.

Shaista Gohir OBE is the interim Executive Director of the Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK). She explains that while it is important for women in Islamic communities in the UK to be divorced – or married – “in the eyes of God”, she routinely receives complaints from women who seek help from certain Sharia councils that use “religious guilt” to “put pressure” on them to concede on important details of their separation.

Documents seen by RightsInfo evidenced a case Ms Gohir oversaw of a woman who went to a Sharia council in east London in an attempt to dissolve her marriage to an abusive husband.

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“One of the allegations against her husband was extremely serious and involved child sexual abuse. The case was going through the civil courts. However, the council told her she would only be granted an Islamic divorce if she agreed to allow her husband to have access to the child and she was asked to sign an agreement.

“They should not be getting her to sign anything like that because it has nothing to do with Sharia law. It is a civil law issue. But there is no body that is overseeing them and no accountability for their practice.”

‘High concern’ Over Untrained Sharia Councils

Shaykh Mohammad Yazdani Raza Misbahi is the chairman of charity organisation the London Fatwa Council, which has a reputation for providing psychological support to women who are seeking an Islamic divorce because of domestic violence.

Unregulated and untrained Sharia councils, he said, were of “high concern” to his organisation.

“We see so many women who have had the wrong experience,” he tells RightsInfo.

“We pick up a lot of cases from [other Sharia councils]. We make sure we take into consideration the rights of women and facilitate a service where we can provide psychological support to look after them, counsel them, and bring them back to confidence, character and personality.”

Accountability And Opportunism

As well as being an Islamic scholar, Shaykh Mohammad has a background in UK law. He believes that most of the negative issues women experience with Sharia councils are due to a lack of proper training and opportunism.

“We are seeing individuals with nothing else to do, who have an extended beard and who want a quick return [from facilitating these divorces]. We can’t have an individual that hasn’t studied law sort out an immigration case, or a dentist pluck out teeth if they haven’t be trained. Education is key.

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“Accountability is very important too,” he continues. “If a person has every professional quality to judge a relationship between two persons, then they should be held accountable and questioned on their practise as well. But who is going to hold them to account and what will that framework look like? It’s a charter that will take many years to develop.”

Shaykh Mohammad suggests naming and shaming those not conducting their Sharia services in a fair and equal way “according to the standards of the UK” – something divorce coach and founder of Divorce Survival Nabila Fowles-Gutierrez agrees with.

Setting Gold Standards

Previously a midwife, Nabila became a divorce coach after having a less-than-positive experience with one Sharia council, also in east London.

Now she helps support and communicate the needs of Muslim clients between Sharia councils and civil lawyers to ensure they receive the best possible protection.

“We need to create a gold standard so that you know if you go to a Sharia council they have been trained in escalation processes, family law, risk assessments, and more. At the moment it is like the Wild West and we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.”

She believes that it is imperative that some form of accreditation is put together for better mediation of Sharia council standards. She also believes that educating Muslim women on their civil rights – and what standard of practise they should expect from a Sharia council – is imperative.

“To many, the word of God is much more important than the word of law,” she tells RightsInfo. “When you have that element added in, the fear of God, the fear they could be punished for leaving their husband who has been abusive to them, it becomes much easier for them to be influenced in these complicated decisions. Lots of women are more likely to trust their local religious leader than they are a solicitor.”

Recognising Religious Marriage: A Quick Win

One of quickest and most effective ways to enhance the rights of Muslim women in matters of marriage, all sources agreed, was to ensure that their marriages were legally binding.

Siddique Patel is a practising Muslim and a solicitor at Shoosmiths national law firm. He is also the deputy leader of a campaign called Register Our Marriage. He believes that the Marriage Act 1949 is out of date and could easily be reformed to include all Muslim marriages – not just Jews and Christians, as it does now.

“Religious marriage is not recognised by the law. As a result, if a marriage breaks down, usually the more vulnerable party, the woman, ends up having no claim to property or anything else.

“Reform the Marriage Act 1949, and make it so all religious marriages must be registered under civil law so that every couple has a legally recognised marriage.

Image credit: Siddique Patel, Shoosmiths laywer/Press

“We want to empower Imams to give people more knowledge [on their civil rights]. We want to train Imams so that they don’t perform the Nikah [religious marriage] until they have seen proof of a legally registered marriage or proof that they have booked it.

“This is a quick win, and by putting in the mechanisms to make sure that works, you are protecting so many vulnerable women.

“I’ve had clients where there has been a ten-to-15-year relationship and he has left the family with nothing. She has been a homemaker, with no income of her own, and little independence. That is an injustice, it is unfair and it is against Islamic law.”

Government Review

Mr Patel is now working closely with the Government, which has agreed to start a formal review of the Marriage Act. His plans include setting up steering groups of Imams, and encouraging them to work with women’s groups, academics, parliamentarians and law makers to raise awareness of the campaign.

“We have to remember we live in the UK and respect the law of the land,” Mr Patel adds. “By making it so that marriages are registered you start attacking that problem as well.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Women’s Network UK has successfully petitioned the government to look into a review of the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002. The Act updated existing divorce legislation to include Jewish marriages. Some Jewish women in legally recognised marriages were pressured into “giving in to unfair custody or financial demands” in exchange for a religious divorce. The Act means that a civil court can refuse to dissolve the marriage until proof of a religious divorce is given. The MWNUK wish to add Muslim marriages to this amendment too.

As a response to the MWNUK’s  request, the Ministry of Justice is also looking into the formation of a new offence of conducting a religious marriage if it does not create a lawful marriage or if the couple are not already lawfully married. Furthermore, the Law Commission will review how and where people are allowed to get married in England and Wales.

“There are already laws in the UK that protect women from discrimination,” Mr Patel concludes.

“You’ve got the Equality Act 2010. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which is again part of the Human Rights Act 1998. As part of their religion, people have the right to be married – and also not to be married.

“To Muslims I will say that there is no part of British law that tells Muslims to breach their Islamic principles. It does not stop me from practicing in the way I want to practice – and it doesn’t stop them, either.”

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