- Sharia courts across Britain are denying Muslim women their legal rights
- Being encouraged by the British state in the name of increased security
- Commons Home Affairs Committee begun investigation into Islamic law
- The courts are used by Muslim families to adjudicate on personal matters
As a young British-Pakistani woman, Lubna faced an agonising decision. She was brought up a devout Muslim in a prosperous middle-class family in the north of England, but her arranged marriage to the father of her two children was a disaster.
He was both sexually abusive and physically violent; he and members of his family regularly beat up Lubna.
When he suddenly disappeared to pursue a new life in America with a new woman, she was left to work night and day to support his elderly parents until they threw her out of their house.
Lubna moved to London to rebuild her life. She studied for a university degree, and with the support of her family, began civil proceedings to divorce her husband.
Unlike her terrifying marriage, the process was largely pain-free. Thanks to a restraining order, her furious husband – who returned to contest the divorce – was banned from approaching her.
The court granted her custody of their children and successfully hid her address from him for fear of reprisals. But after she was persuaded to obtain an Islamic divorce in the sharia court, her true nightmare began.
First, the clerics tried to persuade her to attempt a reconciliation with her abusive husband. Then, after they disclosed her address, he threatened to kill her, kidnapped her children, and subjected her to an horrific rape that left her needing an abortion.
Lubna had not even thought she needed a sharia divorce, but shortly before her decree nisi was made absolute, her estranged husband stood up before a prayer meeting at her local mosque in East London and denounced her as ‘a loose woman’ who was being pimped by her widowed mother Shagufta.
He said he was ‘still willing to take her back for the sake of our children’.
Although at least one imam knew the horrific background to her marriage, a delegation from the mosque visited her family to persuade her to return. When that failed, the imam, an old family friend, put more pressure on Lubna to go to the sharia court.
To satisfy her devout Muslim mother, who was being intimidated by the wider Muslim community, she eventually went to the sharia court near London’s Regent’s Park. What happened there shocked her to her core.
Faced by a ‘bench’ of clerics who described themselves as ‘judges’, she expected to be able to describe her plight at the hands of her violent husband.
Gita Sahgal: Britain has embarked on an unsavoury Faustian pact in which the rights and safety of Muslim women in this country have been sacrificed in the name of security
She told me: ‘The court was incredibly difficult. My mother and I were repeatedly told to be silent. None of the information from the civil proceedings, including non-molestation orders, was admissible in the sharia court.
‘When my ex-husband said he wanted a reconciliation, the judges said I should comply.
‘I tried to tell them about the violence and abuse I had suffered throughout the marriage, but was advised to be quiet. My mother was also silenced.’
She faced intrusive questioning about the last time she had sex with her husband – crucial, the judges told her, to determine exactly when their relationship had ended. She was also forced to disclose her address.
This is the reality of sharia courts currently spreading across Britain and denying Muslim women their legal rights – a proliferation that is being encouraged by the British state in the name of increased security. The Commons Home Affairs Committee has begun an investigation into the spread of Islamic law.
Dr Ahmad Al-Dubayan, chairman of the new UK Board of Sharia Councils, told the committee that British Muslims have the right to use sharia courts. They have no legal force but are regularly used by Muslim families to adjudicate on personal matters, including religious marriages and divorces.
Dr Al-Dubayan’s colleague said that Islamic law allows polygamy, but the sharia judges and ‘regulators’ denied that they were promoting the practice.
To me this sounded like double-speak from the very organisation that aimed to standardise procedures and prevent abuses which could be perpetrated by the scores of self-appointed ‘courts’ operating around the country with no regulation.
In other words, they were the good guys who should be trusted to tame the extremists who might flourish if sharia law was driven underground.
The truth, however, is far more sinister.
As an activist and documentary film-maker who has spent more than two decades investigating religious fundamentalism in Britain, I can reveal that sharia courts seek to undermine British law, subject women to humiliation, subjugation and the risk of physical harm, and apply a version of Islamic law that is far more extreme than that used in Muslim countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The most prominent sharia councils are also the fundamentalist ones.
At the heart of their existence is a deliberate lie. The overwhelming majority of cases heard by sharia courts are divorce suits brought by women who are told that a British civil divorce does not count in the eyes of Islam.
Any woman who embarks on a new relationship will, they say, have committed adultery – a crime only equalled in their eyes by apostasy [abandoning Islam] and blasphemy.
Yet the courts in, for example, Bangladesh and Pakistan, are perfectly happy to accept a civil divorce certificate from Britain as evidence of the end of a marriage, which in the Muslim tradition is a civil contract rather than a sacrament. In those countries, the contract must be registered to count as a legal marriage.
But, here in Britain, there are many unregistered marriages.
Hardline: Muslim women campaigning for Sharia law during a protest outside Downing Street
Nobody knows how many unregulated sharia courts there are in Britain. One unofficial estimate put the total at around 85, which means there is a sharia court in pretty much every area with a sizeable Muslim community.
A Home Office study suggests there are about 30, but there are many individuals dispensing sharia law too, in mosques, Islamic centres and even below shops. Even the Home Office study did not name the sharia councils that it had identified.
Yet a generation ago, they were unknown. Now, because of pressure from radical mosques and elsewhere, the basic principle of equality in marriage is dispensed with in favour of an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.
The ending of a marriage in a civil court is simply not enough for a woman to feel she will not be labelled an adulterer if she marries again. That is why some women ‘choose’ sharia divorce, even if they are already divorced.
Lubna was one such woman. After filling in apparently routine paperwork, she went to the sharia court with her mother to press her case for an Islamic divorce.
‘I left the sharia court in tears,’ she added. ‘My mother told me not to worry. But after the case was heard my ex-husband began a sustained campaign of harassment and stalking after learning my address from the sharia court document.
‘He kidnapped my children and threatened to keep them if I did not allow him to come and live with me in my new home.’
Horrified by what she had seen at the sharia court, Lubna’s mother sought advice from Islamic scholars in Pakistan and India, who told her a civil divorce was sufficient for a formal termination of the marriage and that Lubna was right to rely on the protection of the British law, which had granted her custody of the children.
As a result, Lubna never completed the sharia divorce and went on to rebuild her life.
If imams here spread that message, the sharia business would collapse. By common agreement, Islamic divorces account for the vast majority of cases heard in the sharia courts, which are dominated in this country by fundamentalists who seek to perpetuate the male domination of marriage.
They believe that men can end a marriage simply by repeating the words ‘I divorce you’ three times, while women must come before them and subject themselves to the intrusive questioning of an Islamic scholar who might typically ask them what more they could do to please their violent and abusive husbands.
Sharia courts can also interfere with the laws of property and inheritance. Hameeda, 70, was forced to abide by rules imposed by a sharia court consulted by her strict Muslim sons after her husband died.
The court told her she had to remain in iddat (seclusion) for 40 days. ‘I do not understand this rule,’ she said. ‘Iddat is for women who might be pregnant. I am an old woman.
Did these judges think there was any possibility that I could be pregnant? Are they stupid? I was not allowed to answer the phone, the front door or even to go into the garden during this time because a man may see me! I felt like I was in prison.
‘Four months after my husband died, I came under a lot of pressure from my sons to sell my house and give the money to them. They have been speaking to this sharia judge again.
He told them that in English law I may own the house I live in but this is not the right way in Islam.
‘He said that my husband’s property should have been given to my sons. I cry every day because I do not know what is going to happen to me. Where will I go? I worked as a machinist for many years – day and night – to build a home for my family. I do not want to give up the home I have worked so hard to make.
‘I am now being forced to listen to lecture after lecture from my sons about my religion and what it says about what happens to the family’s wealth after the husband dies.’
Sharia courts are now orchestrating a cynical public relations campaign in which they are rebranding themselves not as courts, but as mediation and arbitration services. But in truth the first was established around 1986 by Islamic fundamentalists in an attempt to promulgate their rigid version of faith.
The presiding imams often call themselves ‘judges’ and in the oldest sharia council, they sit at a raised bench, looking down at the women who are petitioning for divorce.
Yet the ‘justice’ they dispense has none of the safeguards and legal rights that petitioners in properly convened courts of law enjoy.
The most sickening thing is that the spread of sharia law has been aided and abetted by the British state, which sees acceptance of these shadowy courts as a way to appease what they regard as ‘non-violent’ extremists.
In doing so, Britain has embarked on an unsavoury Faustian pact in which the rights and safety of Muslim women in this country have been sacrificed in the name of security.
A disturbing example came earlier this year when the Home Office, then under Theresa May, announced an ‘independent’ review into sharia law as part of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.
Alarmingly, the Home Office appointed two imams as advisers to the panel, which is chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, herself a theologian.
Surely they should be discussing the rights of women who may have been harmed by sharia courts rather than the finer points of Islam?
Sharia courts are being wooed by local councils and the police, who see them as a valuable bridge to the Muslim communities.
But they have been accused of pressuring the Crown Prosecution Service to drop domestic violence cases, claiming that they have been successfully ‘mediated’.
It is a scandal, too, that some of these sharia courts have been given charitable status. Where is the public interest in allowing an abusive process and promoting a separate legal system? These so-called courts are businesses demanding fees of up to £800 for a divorce.
Lubna’s mother said: ‘I do not have words to convey my anger at what was being done in this supposed court. I do not recognise this Islam or how it is being portrayed.
My time is coming to an end, but I am so sad for the generations to come if we continue on this path.’
- Find out about The One Law For All campaign at onelawforall.org.uk.