Sharia courts should be abolished in Britain, and British courts handed legal powers to adjudicate on Islamic divorce, an expert in Sharia has advised a government committee.
In written evidence to be submitted to the Home Office Select Committee’s inquiry into Sharia councils in the UK, Elham Manea, associate professor in Middle East studies at Zurich University, argues that making it mandatory for Islamic marriage ceremonies to be accompanied by a civil marriage will nullify the need for Sharia councils in the UK, as they are overwhelmingly used by women seeking a divorce.
Under Islamic law, men can divorce their wives simply by saying “talaq” (“I divorce you”) three times. But women must gain a judicial decree, or forgo all financial rights, in order to obtain a divorce from a sharia judge, in a process which costs £400. Many women report having been pressured by the council into staying with their husbands under the guise of taking part in mediation.
In her evidence, Manea says the vast majority of women attending the courts – which may be as informal as “an imam in the living room,” according to the think-tank Civitas, – are women who have not formalised their religious marriages under British law, and therefore have no legal rights in the British courts.
Amra Bone, the UK’s first female sharia judge, last week told BBC Radio 4 that sharia courts are “a necessity for people who do not have a recourse to civil courts because their marriages are not recognised” and that vulnerable women would be left “in limbo” without them.
But Manea, who has spent the last four years researching Sharia councils in the UK, argues that there are alternative solutions than allowing “inherently discriminatory” sharia councils to continue.
She told The Guardian: “It’s true women will be stuck if you don’t provide a solution but that solution is not a parallel legal system.
“Interpretation in many Islamic countries including Tunisia and Morocco means a religious divorce automatically follows a civil one. It should be the same in Britain and a bureau within the courts should provide this service.”
She is calling for a national campaign for all Islamic marriages to be registered, a move which she says will reveal the true scale of the number of polygamous marriages currently ignored by the British system.
Nus Ghani, the Conservative MP for Wealdon, who sits on the home affairs select committee, says she would welcome such a register.
“Under sharia, men are in charge and women are treated as their property. That does not sit well under British law and cannot go unchallenged,” she said.
“We can’t have a system where we are championing equality for women on one hand and but on the other overlooking a whole section of society – vulnerable women who happen to be Muslim.”
Ghani, who pushed for the inquiry into sharia councils, said she would support a campaign to register all Islamic marriages. “We need to make sure any imam that oversees a nikah should also register that marriage.
“It may be we have a nationwide survey to make sure everyone who has an Islamic marriage is told to register under civil law so if they need a civil divorce they will also get the talaq.”
The Muslim Law (Sharia) Council UK in Wembley has said that it has always encouraged the civil registration of Islamic marriages in the UK. Its executive secretary, Moulana Raza, said: “We strongly believe this is the only way of securing financial and legal rights of married Muslim women in the UK. We would welcome any action in this respect by the government.”
He added: “Councils are thriving because there is no other authentic and credible mechanism for Muslim women to obtain an Islamic divorce. If the government offered an alternative, 90% of the work of sharia councils would end.”
“We believe the sharia councils are an additional burden on the shoulders of the Muslim community. In our opinion there are some councils which are geographically located in the UK but, ideologically, they are not in Britain.”