Governement inquiry on ’sharia courts’
Written evidence submitted by Yasmin Rehman
I am a freelance consultant and have worked on violence against women and girls for more than thirty years from caseworker to policy and strategy. This work has included a focus on domestic and sexual violence, forced/child marriage, female genital mutilation, ritual abuse, prostitution and trafficking, and child sexual exploitation. I have published some of my work in a book called Moving in the Shadows: Violence against Minority Women and Girls, which I also co-edited. I have been researching polygamous and temporary marriage practices in Britain for the past six years for a book to be published in 2017. In my work on forced marriage, honour based violence and most recently polygamy, I have undertaken widespread research drawing from experiences of addressing these issues in a number of countries including Indian sub-continent, North Africa, USA, Canada and others.
I am submitting this evidence in a personal capacity. Please note I am a Board member of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the Cross Government Working Group on Hate Crimes, a member of the Centre for Secular Space and a Fellow of the Muslim Institute. From 2004-2008 I was Director of Partnerships and Diversity with the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). In this role I was strategic lead for development, delivery and implementation of MPS domestic violence, honour based violence and violence against women strategies. I was also Deputy Association of Chief Police Officer (ACPO) lead for forced marriage and later honour base violence. I was an expert adviser on a number of Gold Group investigations of domestic homicides and honour killings. I also led on community engagement with women in London following the 7/7 bombings.
I am a Muslim woman. I am also part of a campaign calling for the Government’s Inquiry into Sharia Councils to be judge-led, impartial and human rights centred rather than theologically based. Many of my fellow campaigners are also submitting evidence to the Select Committee.
I would welcome the opportunity to present oral evidence to the Select Committee.
I believe strongly that we cannot afford to ignore the context in which Sharia courts have been established and spread across the country. This context includes the emergence of political Islam and Islamist claims to be the guardians of an ‘authentic’ Islam. It is widely accepted that one’s identity cannot be reduced or limited to religious identity but that it is complex, multi-layered. However, Sharia courts are imposing a particular view of what it means to be a Muslim and deviating from this accepted view can have significant consequences.
It is important to acknowledge, understand and recognise that women exercise choice within social, community, cultural and religious constraints. Muslim women are being coercively controlled by community institutions and expectations and not just by individual husbands, fathers and brothers. Muslim women face clear and present threats should they challenge religious norms which are by definition much more than those imposed by men but seen as prescribed by Allah therefore any challenge is viewed as a direct challenge to faith itself.
Muslim marriages may be monogamous, polygamous and/or temporary. Some are registered under English civil laws whereas others remain non-registered. The lack of a debate and clear policy direction about which marriage forms are acceptable and those which are not is needed in order to provide clarity but most importantly to protect Muslim women and children in these various unions.
I call upon the Select Committee to ensure that it hears evidence from secular women’s groups who have campaigned for the rights of minority women to be protected for many decades and who have direct experience of working with women from the Muslim communities in the UK and overseas.
Wish to end by posing a question – how does the ongoing, State supported separation of Muslims living in Britain through education and parallel legal systems to promote community cohesion and integration?
In a context of Islamisation
I and many others have argued that through the erasure of cultural practices and a denial of the diversity of Muslims and Islamic practices across the world, Islamists are reinforcing their world view and creating a perception of a homogenous, monolithic Muslim identity. Pragna Patel has written about the shariafication by stealth of the legal apparatus which involves making state law and policy ‘Sharia’ compliant. I suggest that the extremist agenda is focused beyond the legal structures and is instead a project of Islamisation by stealth which impacts upon all aspects of the lives of Muslim men and women – the public and the private spheres – ordered by and framed within a single, authoritarian version of Islam. Sharia courts are an example of this Islamisation in practice having established themselves as the guardians of religious knowledge and practice in line with the Islamist political agenda. The reach of Sharia courts has extended beyond family and matrimonial matters and now permeates all aspects of a Muslims life as confirmed by Khola Hassan, a member of the Islamic Sharia Council (ISC), who stated that ISC issued 30-40 fatwas per day relating to all aspects of life. I am deeply concerned at what I see as the infantilisation of the Muslim community and perceived need to have every aspect of our lives verified and justified by a religious body. This is a new development and in line with the imposition of a single, Muslim identity and accepted practice. It is also reinforced through community pressures and community media outlets e.g. television. As Ziauddin Sardar states in Critical Muslim - It is simply not good enough to be a Muslim. You have to be labelled Sunni or Shia, and from there on progressively put in smaller boxes….And to those who deviate one iota …are, by definition, kaffirs – infidels who deserve to die. This chilling statement from Ziauddin Sardar sums up the basis of divides amongst Muslims and the battle for an authentic Muslim identity. There is no longer any space for those of us who are secular and progressive and, as Kenan Malik says wear our faith lightly and not as a sacrosanct public identity. The primacy of a faith identity above all else is now commonly accepted but for Muslims this in itself is no longer enough. This was made absolutely clear in the recent murder of Asad Shah, a member of the Ahmadiyya sect who are considered heretics by the wider Muslim community.
Britain is not the first country to find itself grappling with calls for recognition and implementation of Sharia law with regard to family, matrimonial, inheritance and property matters. The challenge mounted by the No Religious Arbitration Coalition in Ontario led by the Canadian Council of Muslim Women is an important example of how a coalition of groups holding the principles of women’s rights, anti-racism and freedom of religion at the core of their work, successfully campaigned against religious arbitration in family matters. I support the arguments put forward in that campaign, notably, that Sharia is not the sixth pillar of Islam and that non-participation, challenging and refuting Sharia courts does not curtail a Muslim from practising their faith. If Sharia law is central to religious practice then the logical question would be to ask why limit Sharia to family, property and inheritance matters? Where Islamists have taken power the trajectory followed has been to begin with women and family and then move to criminal matters as can be seen in Afghanistan, Iran etc.
Sharia is itself contested in many countries including Muslim majority contexts. There is no uniform understanding, interpretation or application of Sharia laws within and across the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. This has been clearly evident recently in Nigeria and Pakistan where gender equality measures and violence against women proposals have been challenged by many religious leaders as in contravention of Sharia whereas others have supported the proposals based on Sharia principles. In India, 50,000 Muslim women and men have signed an online petition calling for an end to oral, unilateral and triple talaq (divorce). Given these contestations and variances in interpretation any attempts to suggest a unified set of tenets of Sharia law would be open to question and challenge.
It is also worth noting that there are many cases in courts in Pakistan, where Muslims in Britain have taken cases against family members, as a result of dissatisfaction with Sharia inheritance arrangements and seeking civil resolutions.
Given the contested nature of Sharia laws and their application I am concerned that any move by the Government, to support practices in some Sharia courts in Britain as a result of the Select Committee Inquiry and Home Office Review, may be perceived as British State endorsement of specific school(s) of Islamic jurisprudence. Which school or schools of Sharia laws would be deemed to be acceptable in Britain? How would such an endorsement be received by Muslims in Britain and elsewhere? What would be the impact of such an endorsement on those challenging Sharia laws in Muslim majority contexts? How would such an endorsement be it perceived or intended, sit in relation to the State’s duties under Article 9 of the Human Rights Act?
I am also deeply concerned at the discussions I have heard about regulation. Regulation by whom? Again the issue of which schools of Islamic jurisprudence arises but even a cross sect body would be fraught with challenges such as inclusion of Ahmadiyya for example.
Choice and Women’s Agency
Muslim women deserve the protection of concrete provisions of statutory laws and not be subject to an undefined set of religious principles. However, the argument most often presented by supporters of Sharia Courts is that women ‘choose’ to exercise their ‘rights’ to religious resolution in family and matrimonial matters and for this reason, above all others, this ‘choice’ should be respected. These are the same arguments that are presented with regard to religious dress codes. I strongly urge the Select Committee to consider the context in which this ‘choice’ is being exercised but also to be mindful of which ‘choices’ are approved of, and/or supported by the Muslim community and that these ‘choices’ are framed within social, community, cultural and religious constraints.
Participating in a Sharia court process to address family and matrimonial matters has quickly become a mark of faith and those who resist or choose not to enter into such settlements have to contend, at the very least, with accusations of not being good Muslims to being labelled as apostates and the inherent consequences of this for the individual and their families. Women who choose to use Sharia courts, who enter polygamous marriages or adopt the hijab/niqab are all deemed to be exercising a ‘choice’. Given that such ‘choices’ conform to religious and community gender norms, it is not surprising that these ‘choices’ are supported, encouraged and fought for by religious and community leaders. I know only too well from my work over several decades the very real and often fatal consequences for minority women of exercising choices that sit outside of these religious and community norms. The freedom to choose one’s spouse or not to marry, to pursue an education or career, choice in how to dress, to participate or not in religious courts all can meet with responses ranging from opprobrium to violence and abuse. As Fiona Vera-Grey recently stated there needs to be a ..framework which recognizes both that women have agency and that it is limited by the context in which it is exercised… [ and that we must] …acknowledge the complex, multiple and uneasy ways in which women, individually and collectively, actually live our agency, and our oppression, within the current gender order.
The Committee will no doubt be aware of the real fears that silence many Muslim women from speaking up even in what could be considered what are considered safe spaces. At a meeting held in London in June at which I challenged the need for Sharia courts I was labelled an apostate in front of all those gathered for the meeting by an Imam who is considered a liberal by many. Such accusations have consequences as he well knows.
Coercive Control and Minority Women
In 2015, the Government took the brave stand of introducing legislation that recognised coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate and family relationships. This control is predicated on the devalued status of women which is reinforced in Sharia courts where men are viewed as guardians of their women giving them increased status and power. Many women’s organisations applauded the Government for the measures the new legislation introduced. However, for minority women this control can and does extend beyond control in intimate and family relationships. This is evident in the many cases of honour killings where non-family members have participated in the violence and abuse targeted at women and men who are deemed to have violated social, religious and cultural norms. As Professor Evan Stark, who identified the concept of coercive and controlling behaviour states;
The spatial and temporal dimensions of coercive control are far broader than in comparable instances of power and control….The extensiveness of coercive control is complemented by its intensiveness. As regulation is diffused to sites where victims normally feel safe and independent, they make ever more desperate attempts to forge moments of autonomy within spheres of oppression where they can reflect on their situation, contemplate their options, and retain a sense of self. (p208)
The spatial extension of coercive control and the use of tactics to penetrate everyday life means that the typical condition of victims is to be free and subjugated at once. (p209)
Whilst some Muslim women may feel that they are exercising agency in participating in a Sharia court for many others refusing is tantamount to directly challenging a direction from Allah something that simply cannot be contemplated and therefore non-participation is not an option. There needs to be increased recognition of coercive control, group dynamics and the imposition of group identity and religious norms as part of this control.
I have been researching and writing about polygamous and temporary marriages in Britain for several years as stated above. My research shows that women and men are entering polygamous marriages and/or religious marriages often through ‘choice’ and as a public mark of piety and religious observance. Many of the women I interviewed stated that they wanted a civil marriage but were coerced into a religious marriage only as a mark of faith and commitment to the union. Those who were second or third wives do not of course were unable to have a civil ceremony because of polygamy is not recognised. Of course there are those who enter into religious marriages only in order to avoid financial penalties that may be incurred by divorcing under English civil law.
Supporters of Sharia courts have repeatedly stated that those in polygamous and non-registered marriages can only seek resolution in family matters from religious courts. In the case of polygamous unions this is partly true given that Muslim men are circumventing the bigamy laws by entering non-recognised, polygamous unions. A debate about polygamy and a policy response is long overdue but is not the focus of this Committee or the impending Sharia Inquiry. However, I would ask the Committee to consider why non-registered marriages are able to take place and why the resolutions available to cohabiting couples cannot be utilised by those in non-registered marriages? The English courts have vast experience of dealing with cases of overseas marriages, polygamous marriages, cohabiting couples, prenuptial arrangements etc. All of which could assist and inform a response to couples in many diverse situations.
It has been suggested that mosques be registered as a place for civil marriages. It must be noted that Imams can conduct religious marriages in any venue and are not limited to mosques so this suggestion would not fully address the issue.
The lack of a debate and clear policy direction about which marriage forms are acceptable and those which are not is needed in order to provide clarity but most importantly to protect Muslim women and children in these various unions.
Evidence from minority women and women’s organisations
I call upon the Select Committee to ensure that it hears evidence from secular women’s groups who have campaigned for the rights of minority women to be protected for many decades and who have direct experience of working with women from the Muslim communities in the UK and overseas. I am deeply concerned that the many Muslim women will be too afraid to give evidence for the reasons stated above and that only those in favour of Sharia courts will be heard.
Supporters of Sharia courts have repeatedly stated that English law remains supreme and that Sharia courts are subservient to it. However, it is the divorce granted in the English courts which is not recognised in the Sharia courts. As Balchin and Warraich state in Muslim majority countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan:
There is no known case where validity of a British registry marriage has been challenged in the Bangladesh or Pakistan courts and legal practice presumes a British civil divorce to be valid under local laws. Cases coming before Bangladesh and Pakistan courts involving a British civil divorce invariably involve custody and property disputes, and neither party challenges the actual fact of the divorce.
However, it is Sharia courts in Britain which challenge the validity and actual fact of civil divorces which have taken place in the English courts. This begs the question as to which courts are supreme and which subservient.
I wish to end by posing a question – how does the ongoing, State supported separation of Muslims living in Britain through education and parallel legal systems promote community cohesion and integration? I think this is an important question and requires much further consideration. If we are to address the sense of alienation felt by many Muslims and separateness felt by the wider community is this best done by State endorsement of parallel legal systems.
 Sharia Councils have operated since 1980s in line with spread of Islamism. It begs the question why Muslims in Britain did not feel the need for religious courts prior to this date to resolve marital difficulties/disputes.
 Statement made at meeting held on 2nd June 2016 at House of Lords and hosted by Baroness Uddin.
 Today, the five schools of Islamic thought accepted by most Muslims are the Ja‘fari, comprising 23% of the Muslims; the Hanafi, comprising 31% of the Muslims; the Maliki, comprising 25% of the Muslims; the Shafi΄i, comprising 16% of the Muslims; and the Hanbali, comprising 4% of the Muslims. The remaining small percentage follow other minority schools, such as the Zaydi and the Isma΄ili.
 http://www.islamic-sharia.org/talaq/ this is advice taken from the Islamic Sharia Council in London regarding triple talaq and would be contested in Muslim majority countries and in example of India above.
 Meeting held on 2 June 2016 in House of Lords hosted by Baroness Uddin as part of Roundtable to discuss the Sharia Inquiry. Imam accused me of leaving Islam. Was this because I had challenged or that I was sitting next to fellow campaigners Pragna Patel (Southall Black Sisters) and Gita Sahgal (Centre for Secular Space)?
 Manea, Elham. 2016. Women and Sharia Law. London. IB Tauris
 Stark, Evan. 2007. Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Balchin, C. & Warraich, S. A. 2006. Recognising the Unrecognised: Inter country cases and Muslim marriages and divorces in Britain. Nottingham. Women Living Under Muslim Laws.