Government enquiry into "Sharia courts"
Written evidence submitted by the
Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO)
IKWRO is a registered London-based, national charity (1104550) founded in 2002, run by and representing women and girls from Middle Eastern, North African and Afghan communities at risk of “honour” based violence, forced marriage, child marriage, FGM, spouse abandonment and domestic violence. IKWRO is a secular organisation supporting women and girls of all faiths/ no faith (most identify as Muslim) to understand and access their rights and entitlements through advice, advocacy, making effective referrals including to solicitors, training and one-to-one and group professional counselling. Our advice team speaks seven community languages plus English. Counselling is provided in Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi and English. In May 2015 IKWRO opened the first specialist refuge for Middle Eastern and North African women at risk of all forms of “honour” based violence. IKWRO trains and advises professionals and campaigns for improvements in law and policy. Last year IKWRO received calls from 2500 women, girls and professionals and assisted 800 women through intensive one-to-one casework.
As IKWRO’s frontline staff (who have extensive experience working directly with affected women and children) explain below, religious arbitration has severe negative impacts; endangering, causing harm (psychological, physical, financial) and curtailing rights under UK law.
To gain a true picture of the extent, severity and range of ways women and children are being negatively impacted, it’s essential to assess and give weight to evidence from specialist, secular women’s rights advocates like IKWRO.
Failure to do so and limiting consideration to/ prioritising direct testimony from affected women ignores that many women with negative experiences are too traumatised/ scared to speak out for some time/ ever.
Some women believe in the authority of religious arbitrators, however this does not that mean she/ her children are not being harmed, endangered or not having their rights under UK law curtailed.
Engaging with religious arbitration is not a free choice / voluntary for many women.
There is no one official version of ‘Sharia’.
Religious arbitration varies in formality and openness; what is consistent is the power and control arbitrators hold and how they are perceived in eyes of the women and the community. Impacts of arbitration behind closed doors must be investigated.
IKWRO would welcome the opportunity to present oral evidence.
Dr Savin Bapir-Tardy DPsych Kurdish speaking Counselling Psychologist at IKWRO since 2010 providing one-to-one and group counselling, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of West London
1. I have numerous experiences of working with women, whose ability to progress to safety and recover from trauma of abuse has been hampered by interference of religious arbitration. The impacts have been both psychological and practical and have prevented women from accessing crucial services and protections resulting in the safety of these women and their children being put at risk.
2. Many women I work with are leaving relationships with their husbands and often family members. They find it difficult to communicate their needs and navigate services due to loss of trust, resulting from the abuse that they have experienced and are therefore extremely vulnerable. In my experience, this vulnerability is often used by religious arbitrators to coerce them into doing things that benefit the reputation of the community and family, rather than the safety of the children or the woman.
3. A Kurdish woman I worked with had severe depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She was very religious. Whilst working with her, there was an ongoing criminal court marital rape case. Simultaneously, she and her husband were attending a ‘Sharia court’. She is a victim of female genital mutilation. She explained that she did not feel anything positive during sexual intercourse. Her husband accused her of withholding sex. The ‘Sharia court’ told her that her husband’s physical and verbal abuse resulted from her not fulfilling her wifely duties sexually. She expressed to me that she blamed herself. The ‘Sharia court’ ordered that ‘custody’ of all five of her sons should be given to her husband, their father and their one daughter should remain with her. She didn’t fully engage in counselling or advocacy support because she wasn’t ready to challenge what she was being told by the religious arbitrators and the community. She completely believed in their authority and power. The parallel ‘legal’ system of the ‘Sharia court’ amounted to a barrier to her accessing justice and protection that she was entitled to under UK law.
4. Another client wanted to divorce her husband. He was coming and going from her life and had entered into polygamy, marrying another woman in the Middle-East. My client felt unable to move on with her own life until she could divorce her husband. However, her husband was refusing the divorce and she was being pressurised by the family and community to remain within the marriage. Further pressure came from religious arbitrators, who told her leaving her husband was ‘haram’ (forbidden) and advised her, with complete disregard for UK child maintenance law, that if she left her husband, he’d have no financial responsibility for her children. This is another example of how ‘Sharia arbitrators’ are a barrier to the rights that all women have under UK law.
5. A further client was subjected to financial and psychological abuse from husband with whom she had a child. She wanted to divorce him but was worried that she and her child would be left without financial entitlement because she was told by religious arbitrators that if she initiated the divorce, she’d lose her dowry. She was not informed by the religious arbitrator to seek advice on her financial rights under UK family law. Therefore religious arbitrators were effectively a barrier to her understanding or accessing her rights under UK law.
6. ‘Sharia courts’ use the power of women’s faith to gain psychological hold over them through guilt. This guilt is used to make any woman who challenges the orders of the religious arbitrators feel as if they are the perpetrator and are responsible for destroying the families’ reputation.
7. It is for this reason that it’s very difficult to get testimony from affected women. Often they truly believe in the authority of the religious arbitrators and that they are responsible for any loss of reputation to the family and community.
Rana Fahmy Counsellor (with IKWRO since 2013, practicing since 2005) providing one-to-one and group counselling in Arabic and English
8. Many women I work with, whose relationships have broken down, place huge weight on the hope a religious divorce will give them closure. However, once they’ve gone through religious divorce, often they find they’re still left with the same pain and loss. They learn that to recover they need time, courage and a willingness examine ones’ self and process the events that took place. Therapy that IKWRO provides can help with this process.
9. In order to begin recovery following abuse, women need to feel safe and have their basic needs met. Without this and when women remain in crisis, they’re not in a strong position to make safe choices and begin recovery. I’m concerned that women going through religious arbitration are generally doing so whilst still in crisis and in vulnerable, possibly dangerous situations. In contrast, when women come to IKWRO, our Advice and Advocacy team support and help women in many practical ways, such as securing them safe housing, often in a refuge so that they can focus on beginning recovery.
10. Another concern about religious arbitration is that men are almost always involved. The women we work with tend to have been brought up believing that speaking about sex is shameful, especially in front of men. They often find it extremely difficult to speak about any sexual abuse, especially to men. Clients have told me they’d never talk about sex in front of male interpreters. Speaking in front of one or more religious conservative men is even more of a barrier.
11. There’s a dominant idea among my clients that husbands are allowed to have sex with their wife when they want to and women should not say no. Many come to us not identifying that they have been raped. They have been led to believe that their husband has the rights to their body.
12. It is unlikely women can move on from rape without understanding it as abuse and engaging in therapy. I would say that about 80% of the married women I have worked with have been victims of marital rape.
13. Retelling traumatic experiences in an unsafe environment can be re-traumatising and cause further damage to mental health. Women may fall back into depression, experience flashbacks, blame themselves for what happened, think they are losing their mind, feel numb and withdraw. Women who experience these impacts are less likely to access/ engage with crucial services such as advice and advocacy, therapy and group work, which would help them in recovery.
14. One client had married her cousin to please her mother and couldn’t develop feelings for him. His response was that she must be possessed. He took her to an Imam, who said there was nothing wrong with her. He took her to another, who said that she was possessed and proceeded to undertake steps for exorcism including reading the Quran so close up to her face, that she felt his breath and spit, whilst touching her head and giving her something horrible tasting to drink. She then started doubt her sanity and to question whether she really was possessed. He continued to try to have sex with her and she continued to refuse. He then said one day they would have sex that night; fearing rape she ran away and was referred to IKWRO.
15. Another client, who’d experienced eight years of domestic servitude before escaping, sought support from a mosque where the Imam introduced her to a man who he recommended as a good husband. Accepting his guidance she married the man only to discover he was subjecting her to polygamy and was already married to two other women and had four children who she was expected to look after whilst he travelled. The eldest son was extremely abusive and threatening to her and her young children, and eventually she fled.
Kharman Adhim Independent Domestic Violence Advocate (IDVA) and Advisor Advocate at IKWRO, working with Arabic, Kurdish and English speaking women and girls.
16. Based on my experience, it’s absurd to say all women have a free choice about whether to engage in religious arbitration when they have problems within their marriage or family. It’s not a free choice; there’s huge pressure from family and the community. As long as it exists in this country, women will be under massive pressure to go through these processes.
17. There’s a broad range of religious arbitration going on, controlling women’s lives, it’s not just the formal courts, it’s happening informally too but this has no less impact.
18. There’s no one overriding ‘sharia’, there are many interpretations and many different religious schools; Sunni, Shia and many more. The woman’s family and community will only accept decisions from the religious school they follow. One of my clients had sought a divorce from the Muslim Law Sharia Council but her Shia family and community rejected it because it’s Sunni, so if she was to travel to Iraq, she’d still be seen as being married and her husband could continue to enforce it.
19. I’ve had a few clients who’ve been told by religious arbitrators to return to reconcile with their husbands, even where they’re a victim of domestic violence. One woman I worked with had four children and a very abusive husband. He’d previously been convicted and spent time in prison for assaulting her. When he was released he returned to Iraq but then came back to the UK and continued to abuse her. He was arrested for assault many times. She’d been to an Imam asking for divorce and they still told her she had to stay with him, even after everything he’d done.
20. The vast majority of my clients have experienced marital rape. Religious arbitrators regularly tell them it’s their Islamic duty to please their husbands and be sexually obedient. Women tell me they have no right to refuse.
21. One client was married to a man who had a prominent role in an influential religious school. She was well educated and had a good job. She suffered horrendous abuse, including anal rape. He used his position of religious authority to control her. He interpreted a verse from the Quran to justify his behaviour and said he had the right to have sex with her any time. She herself did not interpret it as rape. All the family were against her. Her movements were controlled and she was forced to wear a hijab when she hadn’t previously. He threatened to prevent her from having access to her children. She became street homeless and came to IKWRO for help. We informed her of her rights, got her a family solicitor and secured legal orders to protect her and the children.
22. Another woman I worked with was Shia and very strict about her faith. Her husband was bringing a woman to their house so she sought religious divorce, explaining what was happening. Still they insisted she should not leave him. She protested saying he was committing Zina (sin). She felt shocked that she was being denied her right to Khola and quoted the Quran. They still wouldn’t listen to her and were only interested in taking his side.
Zahra Rasouli MSC MPP Advisor Educator and Dari and Farsi speaking Advisor Advocate providing intensive casework to around 100 women and girls annually, mainly Afghan.
23. An Afghan client, who’d suffered years of domestic violence was taken by her husband with their children to Afghanistan and abandoned. A British lawyer helped them return to the UK. Her husband continued to coercively control her and told her she should return to him or alternatively he’d divorce her and allow her to remain with the children on the condition that she never remarried or moved onto a new relationship, otherwise he’d take the children back to Afghanistan where she knew she had no rights. She independently sought advice from ‘sharia court’ about child custody. They told her the children belonged to her husband. The ‘sharia court’ failed to inform her about her rights under UK law and that they trump religious law. Believing in the ‘court’s’ authority, terrified she’d lose access to her children or that her husband would take them back to Afghanistan, she disengaged with help she was being offered and returned to live with her violent, controlling husband. The ‘sharia courts’ were a direct barrier to her engaging in state support and taking a path to safety.
24. Another Afghan client had an abusive and controlling husband who sought advice from a religious arbitrator, accusing his wife of ‘being loose’. The husband then presented a piece of paper to her from the Imam saying that he’d divorced her. The Imam hadn’t had any contact with my client before producing this and had given no consideration to her rights or future. She was caused considerable distress and worried about the damage to her reputation. Her husband then took it back, cancelling the divorce. Then he contacted the same Imam again, who again declared him divorced giving him another piece of paper without any consideration for his wife. This is abusive, both by the husband and religious arbitrator.
25. Another Afghan client has four children with her husband who over many years has been unfaithful, gambled and been physically and emotionally abusive to her. A few years ago she left him but under pressure from her elder children, she returned to him. Then her husband got his girlfriend pregnant and the girlfriend was also abusive to her. She wanted to divorce but her husband said he would only continue to pay the mortgage, household expenses and financially support the children if she performed her ‘wifely duties’. She contacted a ‘sharia court’ to seek divorce and financial maintenance from her husband. She told them about the domestic violence, adultery and gambling. They gave no weight to her disclosure, only focussing on her responsibility to remain in the marriage. She protested that under Islamic law he was committing adultery but they advised her to “warm his heart again” and win her husband’s affections.
26. As well as Islamic religious arbitration in family matters, I am also very concerned about other religious arbitration in family matters. IKWRO provide advice to all communities in specific boroughs, in accordance with our funding. A Polish Catholic client married her Irish Catholic husband because she got pregnant. She suffered a lot of coercive control and economic abuse from her husband and his family, who they lived with. She was working, on a low income, which she valued as her only freedom, but felt trapped as financially she didn’t qualify for legal aid or much state help. She had been given hope by the Catholic priest from her church who said that she and her child could be housed in church accommodation, however this was on the condition of mediation to try to save the marriage and the dangers given the domestic violence were ignored. She refused the mediation but remained trapped in the abusive situation for some time before being referred to IKWRO.
1 End religious arbitration in family matters and uphold one law for all.
2 Ensure sustainable funding for specialist secular women’s rights and human rights based Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) organisations (especially given the imminent loss of EU funding which accounts for over 40% of IKWRO’s funding) to provide advice, advocacy, mental health support and refuge.
3 End government endorsement of religious arbitration including removing charity commission status.
4 Ensure women can access justice through legal aid.
5 Investigate all forms of religious arbitration.