A crossbench peer and human rights expert has called on the Government to conduct a judge-led inquiry into the extent to which Sharia courts are operating in the UK. The move comes amid growing evidence that they are being used to undermine the ancient British principle of equality for all before the law.
In a new paper launched by The Bow Group titled A Parallel World – confronting the abuse of Muslim women in Britain, Baroness Caroline Cox, a highly respected humanitarian activist with more than 40 years experience in the Lords, has criticised Home Secretary Theresa May’s recent pledge to conduct an independent review of Sharia courts in the UK as not being robust enough.
Citing a previous 2011 inquiry conducted by the Ministry of Justice into Sharia courts which was abandoned due to limited response and engagement from Sharia courts, Cox stated that: “without powers to subpoena witnesses, any independent review – no matter how well intentioned – will be another lost opportunity. It is with this in mind that I am calling on the Government to launch a judge-led inquiry into the matter.
“A judge-led inquiry will be an important step in highlighting more accurately the extent to which a rapidly developing alternative quasi-legal system is endorsing unlawful or improper conduct within the UK.”
Cox cites a number of cases in which Muslim women have found themselves marginalised and discriminated against by sharia courts and the imams who sit in judgement within them. One woman told her: “I feel betrayed by Britain. I came here to get away from this and the situation is worse here than in the country I escaped from”.
Another, Sami, who came to the UK from the Middle East to seek asylum was pressured by a community leader to marry a local Muslim man. Before she could do so, she was told that permission would have to be sought from her 11-year-old son in Jordan, as her closest male relative and guardian, even though she was in her 40s.
Sami also recounted examples of polygamy, coercion by Imams to force women to remain in abusive marriages, and women, many of whom do not even speak English, who are not made aware of their legal rights as British citizens by their husbands and Imams.
“I am worried because the Government and people outside the Muslim community are frightened to address sensitive issues like Sharia law, when the well being of the majority is more important that the sensitivity of the minority,” she said.
Sara was married to a man who became physically abusive towards her whilst she was pregnant. Although their marriage was not recognised in civil law, she wanted a Sharia divorce to make it official. But her Imam would not grant her a divorce without her husband’s permission, later adding that he would – if she agreed to pay £1000, which she could not afford.
Eventually Sara persuaded her husband to attend a meeting at the mosque to discuss a divorce. But when they arrived, the Imam asked her whether she had prayed, and whether she was menstruating. When she replied that she had not prayed and was menstruating, she was told to go away, pray for two weeks, and then return. Humiliated, she never went back and has still not been granted a divorce.
Under the Arbitration Act 1996, parallel systems such as sharia courts or the Jewish Beth Din can be used for arbitration. But unlike the Beth Din which the report says limit themselves to “civil arbitration and religious rulings [which] remain subject to English law and public policy,” Sharia courts and councils are “portraying themselves as being able to make legally binding decisions for members of the Muslim community. Sometimes the Arbitration Act is used to support this claim.”
The courts regularly hand down judgements which discriminate against women, in contravention of British law, and have been found to be sitting in judgement on criminal cases which is well outside their remit.
The British Indian author and journalist Edna Fernandes has conducted her own investigation. She found that “scores [of] imams dispense justice through their own mosques. […] Sharia is being used informally within the Muslim community to tackle crime such as gang fights or stabbings, bypassing police and the British court system”
Baroness Cox has, in the course of this Parliament, introduced a Bill designed to tackle some of the abuses of justice that Sharia Courts have been allowed to dole out. But, although the Bill had support from members of all parties, it was struck down by the government on the grounds that it is not needed as all citizens can already freely access their rights.
“This is manifestly untrue as many Muslim women are unaware of their legal rights and can live in closed communities with pressure not to seek ‘outside’ professional help which could invoke ‘shame’ or ‘dishonour’ for their families or communities,” Cox says.
She insists that she respects religious traditions, but is adamant that they not be allowed to trump the British tradition of equality before the law, concluding: “In a free society, and in accordance with the hard-fought tradition of freedom of religion and belief, individuals must be able to organise their affairs according to their own principles, whether religious or otherwise. However, attempting to operate a parallel legal jurisdiction and to allow the de facto creation of new legal structures and standards is unacceptable.”