Sharia ‘Courts’: Why regulation is not the answer

‘Sharia’ and other religious systems of arbitration are back in the news once again. There appears to be growing recognition of the profoundly discriminatory nature of religious arbitration systems which relegate Muslim and other minority women to second rate systems of justice. But is regulation the answer?

A close examination of the workings of ‘Sharia’ Councils and the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal reveal serious failings that flout principles of the rule of law and undermine the rights of women in fundamental ways. These forums use fundamentalist and ultra-conservative definitions of ‘Sharia laws’ in highly selective and authoritarian ways; they seek to impose a social culture of ‘Zina’ which compel women to resolve marital and family disputes using ‘Sharia laws’ or risk becoming social outcastes and worse.

Evidence from the UK and elsewhere shows that such religious arbitration bodies function primarily as a means of exercising control over female sexuality and autonomy. They do not treat women as full persons before the law, but instead subject them to degrading questions and investigative procedures and impede them from leaving violent relationships even if they experience torture or ill-treatment and are at risk of losing their lives. The emphasis is centrally on reconciliation even if this conflicts with the protection principle and gender equality. Questions of marriage, divorce, inheritance, financial and children arrangements as well as polygamy and other cultural forms of harm, must be determined by the civil and criminal laws of the land and not so called ‘religious laws.’ This also means that all religious marriages must be registered by law.

Politicians and lawyers would do well to listen to the voices of over 300 abused minority women who signed a letter last year describing how their rights are violated on a daily basis. Any incorporation and recognition of religious forums would sanction the place of religious leaders in making decisions about women’s lives and normalise deeply patriarchal value systems.

We therefore urge caution in accepting the suggestion that a ‘compromise’ involving regulation and training provides a way forward.  Regulation is neither desirable nor viable for the following reasons:

  • The sheer diversity of religious interpretations would make regulation unachievable;
  • Parallel legal systems create and legitimise arbitrary systems of ‘justice’ which means less scrutiny by state institutions out of fear of ‘causing offence’;
  • There will not be sufficient resources to offer impartial judicial oversight of religious arbitration bodies to ensure compatibility with anti-discrimination and human rights law;
  • In the wider society there is continuing public scrutiny and revision of law and policy and under a democratic parliamentary process but religious law is not open to such scrutiny;
  • There is no political will to reform from within – religious forums around the world have been resistant to progressive reforms on women;
  • Self regulation through bodies such as The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) and the Board of Sharia Councils has failed to ensure the rights of women and children are protected;
  • The accommodation of such forums, will amount to state sponsorship of fundamentalist and authoritarian forms of governance that encourage intolerance, misogyny and homophobia.

As black and minority women, we demand adherence to one legal system grounded within universal human rights principles. We cannot and will not settle for anything less.

Signatories:

Diana Nammi, Executive Director, Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation

Pragna Patel, Director, Southall Black Sisters
Yasmin Rehman, Trustee, Centre for Secular Space
Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All
Sadia Hameed, Spokesperson, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Gina Khan, Spokesperson, One Law for All
Houzan Mahmoud, Cofounder, Culture Project
Rahila Gupta, Writer and Journalist
Sara Khan, CEO, Inspire
Nasreen Rehman, Forced Marriage Commission
Marieme Helie Lucas, Founder, Secularism is a Woman’s Issue
Fatou Sow, International Director, Women Living Under Muslim Laws.
Gita Sahgal, Director, Centre for Secular Space
Rumana Hashem, Nari Diganta Activist
Elham Manea, Author of Women and Shari’a Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK

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