Muslim women complain about Sharia inquiries

File photo dated 2013, showing two Muslim women shopping in London in full-face veils.Image copyright

More than 100 Muslim women have complained about their treatment under two government probes into Sharia law.

The inquiries – one ordered by Theresa May when she was home secretary, and another by the home affairs select committee – are ongoing.

But some women have signed an open letter and said the aim is to ban Sharia councils, not reform them.

The Muslim Women’s Network UK said the inquiries risk treating women like “political footballs”.

The councils are tribunals often used to settle disputes within the Muslim community.

The first evidence session on Sharia councils is due to be held by the home affairs committee on Tuesday.

But Shaista Gohir, the chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK, said the inquiries could patronise women.

“Everyone wants to listen to Muslim women when highlighting their terrible experiences.

“However, when it comes to the solutions everyone thinks they know what is best for them,” she said.

Image caption

Shaista Gohir says shutting down Sharia councils would mean their activities “go underground”

“I do feel that there are people who are anti-faith, particularly anti-Islam, who are using women’s rights as a guise, wanting to abolish Sharia councils.

“If tomorrow or next year you shut down Sharia councils, what would result is Muslim women stuck in marriages, abusive marriages sometimes, and the Sharia divorce service would actually go underground.

“That would result in less transparency, higher prices and more discrimination,” Ms Gohir added.

What are Sharia councils?

Sharia councils are tribunals that seek to apply Islamic laws to everything from financial disputes to marital conflicts.

They are unregulated and largely unknown to the wider public.

The precise number of these councils in the UK is not clear, although research by Reading University suggests the total is about 30.

However, crossbench peer Lady Cox, a longstanding critic of Sharia councils, says women are “suffering” under the system and she has repeatedly tried to get legislation through Parliament to reform the councils.

“So many Muslim women come to me and tell me how desperately unhappy they are,” she said.

“One lady came to me last week and had gone almost suicidal with the provisions of a Sharia council.

“So we need to look at the whole system and the way it operates.”

‘Raw deal’

Lady Cox rejected as “absolute rubbish” the suggestion that critics were using the position of women in Islam to attack Sharia councils.

“A lot of the women who support me are Muslim women, who don’t have a voice.

“Some of the strongest support for what I’m advocating comes from Muslim women themselves,” she said.

Labour MP Naz Shah, who sits on the home affairs committee, said the councils could never be a replacement for the civil courts.

She said: “I absolutely accept that there is discrimination and I absolutely accept that women are given a raw deal.

“When there is discrimination the victims are, by and large, women.

“We will have a big conversation with Muslim women directly.”

The Home Office declined a request for an interview.

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