Bill limiting sharia law is motivated by 'concern for Muslim women'

Lady Cox, the proposer, says aim is to prevent discrimination against Muslim women and 'jurisdiction creep' in Islamic tribunals

Bill limiting sharia law is motivated by 'concern for Muslim women'

Lady Cox, the proposer, says aim is to prevent discrimination against Muslim women and 'jurisdiction creep' in Islamic tribunals

Muslim community in Whitechapel




Whitechapel High Street in east London. The area is predominantly Muslim; just over half the population is of Bangladeshi descent. Photograph: Mike Kemp/Corbis



Islamic courts would be forced to acknowledge the primacy of English law under a bill being introduced in the House of Lords.

The bill, proposed by Lady Cox and backed by women's rights groups and the National Secular Society, was drawn up because of "deep concerns" that Muslim women are suffering discrimination within closed sharia law councils.

The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill will introduce an offence carrying a five-year jail sentence for anyone falsely claiming or implying that sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law. The bill, which will apply to all arbitration tribunals if passed, aims to tackle discrimination, which its supporters say is inherent in the courts, by banning the sharia practice of giving woman's testimony only half the weight of men's.

Cox said: "Equality under the law is a core value of British justice. My bill seeks to preserve that standard"

In a similar way to Jewish Beth Din courts, sharia tribunals can make verdicts in cases involving financial and property issues which, under the 1996 Arbitration Act, are enforceable by county courts or the high court.

The tribunals should only be deciding civil disputes but two years ago the think-tank Civitas claimed sharia courts, some 85 of which operate in Birmingham, London, Bradford and Manchester, had crossed the proper limits of their jurisdiction and were regularly giving illegal advice on marriage and divorce.

Cox said they are increasingly ruling on family and criminal cases, including child custody and domestic violence. Jurisdiction "creep" had caused considerable suffering among women compelled to return to abusive husbands, or to give up children and property.

Diana Nammi, of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation, said: "Women and children are very vulnerable members of the community and under sharia law they become invisible. Women and children are the most vulnerable in minority communities where religion tradition and culture has become the identity taking precedence over the human rights and women's rights that are protected under civil, UK law."

The bill requires public bodies to inform women they have fewer legal rights if their marriage is unrecognised in English law. Cox said she had found "considerable evidence" of women, some of whom are brought to Britain speaking little English and kept ignorant of their legal rights, suffering domestic violence or unequal access to divorce, due to discriminatory decisions made. "We cannot continue to condone this situation. Many women say: 'We came to this country to escape these practices only to find the situation is worse here.' "

Cox said she would be asking the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who caused a row last year when he said a recognised role for sharia law seemed unavoidable, to back her bill. She said: "By appearing to condone this inherent discrimination system which is causing real suffering to women, he has failed to recognise that suffering. He is appearing to forward the acceptability and validity of Sharia law in this country."

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: "Laws should not impinge on religious freedoms, nor should courts judge on theological matters. By the same token, democratically determined and human rights compliant law must take precedence over the law of any religion."

Aina Khan, a solicitor who advises on sharia law, said: "It is good in parts. I would like to see best practice in sharia councils, like in the Beth Din model and I would like some legislation. I don't want somebody opening up a sharia board in their front room. Of course sex discrimination laws must apply. But there are some alarmist tones in the bill. Where she goes wrong is assuming that some sort of misogyny and discrimination goes on. Eighty per cent of its users are women."

Khurshid Drabu, adviser on constitutional affairs to the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "Bills of this kind don't help anybody. They don't appear to understand that we live in a free country where people can make free choices. Yet again, it appears to be a total misunderstanding of the concept that underpins these arbitration councils. Sharia councils operate under consent. If there is a woman who suffers as a result of a decision by one of these councils a woman is free to go to the British courts."

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