Bri­tain ‘sharia courts’ un­der scru­tiny

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

LON­DON: For more than 30 years, sharia courts en­forc­ing Is­lamic law have been op­er­at­ing qui­etly across Bri­tain. But two of­fi­cial in­quiries have put them in the spot­light amid ac­cu­sa­tions that they dis­crim­i­nate against women. Very lit­tle is known about them, even their num­ber, which one study by the Univer­sity of Read­ing puts at 30, while the Bri­tish think tank Civ­i­tas es­ti­mates there are 85. Sharia courts or coun­cils, as they pre­fer to be called, mainly pro­nounce on Is­lamic di­vorces, which to­day con­sti­tute 90 per­cent of the cases they han­dle.

They range from groups of Mus­lim schol­ars at­tached to a mosque, to in­for­mal or­ga­ni­za­tions or even a sin­gle imam. But while they are aimed at help­ing re­solve fam­ily and some­times com­mer­cial con­flicts within the Mus­lim com­mu­nity, some stand accused of un­der­min­ing women’s rights. Cam­paign­ers cite in­stances where courts have re­fused to grant re­li­gious di­vorces to women who are victims of do­mes­tic abuse, and ac­cuse them of le­git­imiz­ing vi­o­lence.

The gov­ern­ment and MPs on par­lia­ment’s home af­fairs com­mit­tee both opened in­quiries this year into whether the coun­cils are ac­tu­ally com­pat­i­ble with Bri­tish law. They are look­ing into the func­tion and pos­si­ble dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices of the courts. The first sharia court ap­peared in Lon­don in 1982 un­der the gov­ern­ment of Mar­garet Thatcher, who rolled back state in­ter­ven­tion in many ar­eas, in­clud­ing me­di­a­tion in fam­ily con­flicts, which was del­e­gated to faith groups.

But re­li­gious courts have ex­isted for hun­dreds of years in Bri­tain, whether in the Catholic Church or in the Jewish com­mu­nity - the Beth Din - notes Amin Al-Astew­ani, lec­turer in law at Lan­caster Univer­sity. As with sharia coun­cils, the de­ci­sions of those bod­ies are not legally bind­ing, but they rep­re­sent a strong moral and so­cial con­straint for those who use them, he wrote in a sub­mis­sion to the par­lia­men­tary in­quiry.

For Shaista Go­hir, the chair­woman of Mus­lim Women’s Net­work UK who gave ev­i­dence to the par­lia­men­tary in­quiry, sharia coun­cils are use­ful for Mus­lims but should be framed by a “strong code of con­duct”. She also urged the gov­ern­ment to make civil mar­riage oblig­a­tory for cou­ples mar­ry­ing un­der Is­lamic law, to en­sure women are legally pro­tected, say­ing that 40 per­cent of women who con­tact her or­ga­ni­za­tion only had re­li­gious mar­riages.

But for other Mus­lim fem­i­nists, the courts con­sti­tute a “par­al­lel le­gal sys­tem” and should be banned al­to­gether. An open let­ter to this ef­fect was signed by more than 200 na­tional and in­ter­na­tional women’s or­ga­ni­za­tions, while leg­is­la­tion which would limit the scope of sharia coun­cils has been put for­ward by a mem­ber of the House of Lords. “They are dis­crim­i­na­tory, they are abu­sive, they en­dorse and le­git­imize vi­o­lence,” in par­tic­u­lar mar­i­tal rape, Maryam Na­mazie, spokes­woman for the One Law for All cam­paign, told AFP. She added: “These courts are linked to the rise of the Is­lamist move­ment.” — AFP

KISH, Iran: Ira­nian men walk past a gi­ant sculp­ture dis­played on the beach in this south­ern re­sort island on Nov 1, 2016. Ira­nian in­vestors are pour­ing money into Kish Island in the Gulf, hop­ing its white sand beaches, coral reefs and more re­laxed rules could make it a ma­jor tourism des­ti­na­tion. — AFP (See Page 38)

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