Despite the fact that by law Sharia Councils are not supposed to adjudicate on family or criminal matters, IKWRO staff know of several women who have been pressured to resolve issues such as marriage breakdown, child custody and domestic violence in informal faith-based ‘courts’ in the UK. One woman who wanted a divorce from her abusive husband was told she should make her marriage work. Another was sent home because judges said they would not deal with her while she was menstruating.
Given stories like this, IKWRO celebrated last week when a new bill was launched in parliament which would limit the remit of Sharia Law in Britain and introduce measures to prevent Muslim Arbitration Tribunals from discriminating against women.
The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, introduced by Baroness Cox from the House of Lords, includes several important proposals:
Firstly, it clarifies that family law and criminal law cases must not be decided by arbitration tribunals. In law, Muslim Arbitration Tribunals and the Jewish equivalent Beth Din can make decisions in cases involving financial and property issues which, under the 1996 Arbitration Act, are enforceable by UK courts. However, some Muslim tribunals have been practising other areas of law, including divorce, child custody and domestic violence. The Bill makes it a criminal offence for bodies other than UK courts to claim a remit in these areas, punishable by up to five years in prison.
The Bill will also bring arbitration tribunals under existing rules on sex discrimination, and will outlaw discriminatory practices, such as giving women’s testimony half the weight of men’s and according men greater inheritance and property rights than women. It will also make it easier for the courts to overturn rulings and agreements which have breached equality legislation or have been reached through duress or intimidation. The proposals also make clear that women who have experienced domestic violence are witnesses to an offence and therefore should be expressly protected from witness intimidation.
These are really important steps which will help to protect women’s rights, particularly in situations where they have ended their marriages due to domestic violence. The changes will also help to guarantee equality before the law, and to ensure that basic human rights as recognised in the Human Rights Act and equality legislation are accorded to all.
So what now?
This is a Private Member’s Bill which means it’s been initiated by an individual member of parliament rather than by the government. IKWRO really wants to see this important bill become an act of parliament, and this is more likely to happen if the Prime Minister gets on board.
Back in February, David Cameron criticised “state multiculturalism” and advocated a “muscular liberalism” which would do more to promote equality. Over the coming months, IKWRO will be putting pressure on the Prime Minister to move from words to action, by backing the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill and making sure it becomes law.
We’ll also be working to get MPs to support the bill, starting by asking them to attend a parliamentary debate on this issue, which is being organised by the One Law for All campaign on June 28. Find out more on One Law for All’s website and keep checking our blog for the latest updates.