The parliament was presented with a government report on British Sharia councils existing in Great Britain. The report, which has been prepared for one and a half years, contains sensible ideas, but it disappoints with its superficiality and the lack of accurate data.
In October 2015, the UK government ordered a report on British sharia councils (courts) operating as a parallel legal system in Britain and six months later it appointed a special, independent commission with the task of preparing such a report. The committee was headed by Professor Mona Siddiqui, a Pakistani-born professor of Muslim and religious studies at the theological faculty of the University of Edinburgh. The committee also included three lawyers specializing in family law and, as advisers, two imams who were to ensure “a full and in-depth understanding of religious and theological issues related to particular aspects of sharia law and the rules of its application”.
Appointment of such advisers immediately aroused protests by multiple women’s organizations and activists of Muslim women’s rights. Met with further opposition were the officially formulated tasks of the commission. One of the tasks was “to present good Sharia practices relating to governance, transparency and compliance with the British law.” Dozens of women’s organizations refused to participate in the talks conducted by the commission. Suspecting bias, they accused the commission of an attempt to present a distorted image of the British sharia councils that were functioning in the country. They also expressed doubt in the mission of the committee which was elected, they feared, to steer away from the crucial issue of discrimination against Muslim women committed by those councils.
The official report turned out not to be as slanted as the activists had initially expected. The Commission interviewed both women who used the councils and those who sat in them, as well as various organizations that have been dealing with the councils over the years. As a result of the interviews, one of the commission’s findings was that 90 percent of the British sharia councils’ cases were matters related to Muslim divorce. The vast majority of them were brought by women themselves and they regarded marriages that had no legal certificates – a common practice among Muslim couples who would not consider the City Hall marriages necessary. According to the report, the number of marriages that are not legally binding is growing. This situation, however, is not caused by the ignorance of the Muslim prospective spouses but it would rather be a result of their conscious decision. The report would not directly state it but, apparently, a growing number of Muslim couples who would like to live together and are not ready to enter into a civil union are choosing a religious marriage. A divorce in such cases is absurdly easy for men (through a triple repetition of the right formula, now also available via SMS). For women it is far more difficult and requires, in accordance with the Muslim law, the assembly of a sharia council.
The Commission announced clearly that the so-called sharia courts do not exist in Great Britain and, instead, it systematically used the word councils. At the same time, it admitted, that some councils and their members would use the term court to describe themselves. Furthermore, the Commission explicitly stated that any recommendations made by such councils regarding the division of property or custody of children as a result of the Muslim divorce must be in line with the British law and that these recommendations are by no means valid court rulings, even if some women (clients) think otherwise.
Despite some positive aspects of sharia councils, especially in cases allowing women to obtain a religious divorce (analogous to functions of some Jewish organizations and church courts that annul marriages), the commission postulated limiting the number of cases submitted to the councils. To solve this overarching problem, the committee proposed changing the law in Britain in such a way that Muslim marriages could be concluded, just as the Jewish or Christian marriages, only after the civil marriage is signed. Not only would this limit the number of Muslim marriages, but getting a Muslim divorce would become almost automatic following an approval of a civil divorce. The Committee’s consecutive recommendation was for the government to organize and carry out a national information campaign focused in Muslim neighborhoods and educating women about their rights regarding the matters of divorce like settlements or child custody, and informing them about the existing laws of the United Kingdom.
The above recommendations are undoubtedly reasonable, but the work of the Committee casts shadow on its motivations and goals. The Commission was not able to establish the exact number of existing Sharia councils in England and Wales (in Scotland they are supposedly completely absent). It estimated their number at 35-80.
There was no apparent attempt by the commission to establish an approximate number of cases that these councils were dealing with on yearly basis, which is probably in the hundreds. Moreover, the opinions formulated in the report were based on the interviews with only 7 such councils and merely 8 (eight!) women who were in the divorce proceedings guided by those councils despite the existence of thousands of such cases so far in Great Britain.
Due to the small number of interviews and a poor collection of data, the Commission was also unable to determine how many women in the end were forced to bear unfair financial costs as a result of their divorce (for example, in Islam a woman may be forced to return to her former husband her dowry or gifts received during marriage). The issue of alimonies and whether the divorced women would receive any support from their former husbands was not even examined by the Commission.
To top it all off, it was also not researched how many women have been forced to limit or completely give up their right to child custody. The Committee merely stated that cases of harm do happen, that some women do get wronged financially or become victims of unjust child support decisions.
However, it did not bother to dig any deeper into how often this injustice occurs and how many women it affects. According to unofficial records and various opinions, the discrimination against women in sharia councils is flagrant.
One of the most important was a conclusion by the Committee that there is currently no alternative to sharia councils for Muslim divorces, and that their abolition in the UK would worsen the fate of all religious Muslim women who wish to seek a divorce. Instead, the Commission suggested the government to form a government body consisting of sharia law and family law experts to create general principles for sharia councils to follow.
Considering that the Commission operated for one and a half years, the effects of its work are disappointing and confirming in part the concerns of Muslim feminists. It is not known why the committee conducted so few interviews with women using the sharia councils or why it was unable to determine the number of functioning councils in the UK or at least tell how many women were using them.
The report is rather an intentional attempt to minimize the problem of existence of sharia councils in Great Britain. It is showing them instead as a marginal phenomenon, far away from posing a threat to the rights of many Muslim women and definitely not as a danger of creating a parallel legal system and a competition to British law.
The Polish original: Report on British Sharia Councils