Unofficial and unregulated sharia councils are in operation “everywhere in the country”, British Members of Parliament have been told.
Some Muslim groups have warned that banning the parallel legal structures would lead to yet more backstreet practices springing up.
Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into sharia councils, Dr. Ahmad al-Dubayan, chairman of the UK Board of Sharia Councils, based in Regent’s Park Mosque in London, said it was impossible to know how many councils are in existence, due to the informal nature of most of them.
In some cases, they may be operating out of small shops, “maybe hidden in the basement or somewhere”, he said.
In recent years there has been growing concern over the use of sharia councils to administer rulings on matters such as marriage and divorce, thanks to reports that women are not being treated equally.
Crossbench peer Baroness Cox, who has for the last six years submitted a Private Members Bill calling for loopholes in the Equality Act to be closed to give greater protection to women, has repeatedly highlighted inequalities such as the ability of men to divorce their wives simply by saying “I divorce you” three times. By contrast, women have to pay a fee of several hundred pounds to gain permission from a sharia court.
Yet Muslim groups appearing before the committee have warned against simply banning the courts, insisting that doing so will merely lead to more “backstreet” panels charging higher fees. According to a think tank report, there are currently around 85 recognised courts currently operating as arbitration bodies in the UK.
Dr. al-Dubayan said his board already had around 15 members affiliated but could not “force” others to join.
“There are those small [bodies] who call themselves councils but we as the UK Board don’t even recognise they are councils: individuals or somebody in a small mosque somewhere and… and people come to them as sharia council,” he said.
But while some witnesses appearing before the panel argued that the courts or councils play an important role and are valued by Muslim women who want their marriages and divorces recognised under Islamic rules, others have spoken of the detrimental effect on women’s rights that the councils can have.
Dr Elham Manea, Senior Fellow, European Foundation for Democracy, told the panel: “We have a situation where women are more-or-less pushed to use a certain parallel system of justice.” It was a system which she said had been taken “out of context”, and looks at women as “a perpetual minor, someone who needs to have a […] guardian.” Consequently, she agreed abuse had taken place.
However, the debate on whether sharia councils have a place in Britain is fraught with allegations of “Islamophobia”, making the issue difficult to discuss.
Labour MP Naz Shah, who herself had an arranged marriage at 15, warned against “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and said many Muslim communities felt that calls to ban sharia bodies had an “air of Islamophobia”.
Meanwhile, a televised debate between Baroness Cox and Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation on sharia councils in Britain descended into chaos as Shafiq repeatedly blocked Cox from speaking, shouting allegations of “Islamophobia” and accusing her of being part of a right wing “fascist” agenda.