The Guardian view on sharia councils: shedding some light

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The Guardian view on sharia councils: shedding some light

Post by Didge on Sat Feb 03, 2018 9:03 am

Strikingly little is known about these bodies. Awareness is the key to ensuring that they do not violate the legal rights of women who use them.

The use of Islamic principles in settling marital and family affairs in Britain is in some communities a deeply entrenched social phenomenon, giving rise to so-called sharia councils. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Muslims attempt to live in conformity with sharia rules. They are free to do so provided this does not lead them into breaches of English law.

However, there are worrying instances where councils and advisory tribunals have been suspected of limiting the rights of women who come before them, with questions of family law resolved in favour of the more literal and austere interpretations of Muslim traditions. These instances are also viewed on the far right as Trojan horses which will lead to an eventual Islamic takeover of western Europe, and this ludicrous paranoid fantasy has some political power. A subject at once so explosive and so widely ignored needs sober and scrupulous handling.

This is delivered by Mona Siddiqui’s commission of inquiry set up by Theresa May, when she was home secretary. Its report, published this week, sets out the problem squarely. The decisions of sharia councils have only the force of custom, and family tradition, but these have great power in some communities even when they have no standing in English law. How should the state ensure that they do not lead to injustice? How can it do so when it does not know what is happening within them, or even how many councils exist in this country (estimates range from 30 to 85 or more)? Given that these bodies can place women and children at grave disadvantage, how can injustices be brought to light, let alone rectified, if no one complains, and victims do not even know they have the right to complain?

Ms Siddiqui’s commission recommends that all councils that register a Muslim marriage (which has no legal standing if contracted in this country) should ensure that it is also registered as a civil marriage, guaranteeing the woman all the protections of English law. This is overdue and should not be at all controversial; the question is how it is to be enforced.

Partly as a means of bringing the councils into daylight, a majority of the commission also recommended that the government propose or at least approve a code of conduct for self-regulation. This has been rejected by the Home Office, partly on the grounds that it would involve a recognition of sharia councils. Certainly no one wants an official body regulating a second legal system.

But to recognise the reality of sharia councils operating here is the first step towards limiting any harm that they can do. That should start with more funding for legal aid for those who want to access justice and a closer look at how legally compliant these bodies are in matters of arbitration. Awareness campaigns to ensure people know their rights would help too. Small steps, perhaps, but ones away from the idea that discrimination could be entrenched on the basis of religious identity.


https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/02/the-guardian-view-on-sharia-councils-shedding-some-light

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Didge

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