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Book Review: 'Women and Shar'ia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK'

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In this piece, Christian Concern’s Director of Islamic Affairs, Tim Dieppe, reviews "Women and Shar'ia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK", by Professor Elham Manea. Tim says that Manea, a Professor in the Political Science Institute at the University of Zurich, provides a "devastating critique" of legal pluralism, and recommends that anyone interested in human rights and the welfare of women should read this book.

Elham Manea, I.B. Tauris, 2016

Elham Manea is Associate Professor in the Political Science Institute at the University of Zurich. She explains that this book originated from a media controversy in Switzerland in 2008, when an article by Professor Christian Giordano was published arguing for legal pluralism in Switzerland. Manea responded with an article titled "Islamic law in Switzerland would be devastating". This exchange led her to research the subject in more detail and to write this book. Manea describes herself as "a female Arab academic who considers Islam to be her religion." (p1) She also says she is a women's rights activist who has "seen the dire consequences of the application of shari'a law."

In this book she argues that "Western academics have become the unwitting allies of Islamists who propagate an ideology of Islamism that seeks to essentialise Islam." (p2) These academics see Muslims as a homogeneous group who identify primarily as religious persons. This is exactly how the Islamists want to portray Muslims to the west. She describes Britain as a disastrous example of the experiment of legal pluralism in the name of multiculturalism. She questions how human rights, particularly equality of men and women and freedom from discrimination, can be maintained in a shari'a court.

Manea critiques the cultural relativism which lies behind the arguments of Western academics. She rightly points out that not all cultures deserve equal respect - it is rather individuals who deserve to be treated with equal respect on the basis that they are all of equal value. She agrees with Trevor Phillips that this country is "sleepwalking to segregation," and says that anyone who doubts this should visit the Islamic areas of Birmingham where she felt like she had been transported back to Yemen, her country of origin. She says that Britain's multicultural policies have actually led to a reality of "plural monoculturalism." (p171)

Manea engages in an in-depth critique of former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams's famous lecture of 2008 in which he suggested that English law should accommodate some aspects of shari'a law. She argues that Williams was actually protesting the secular encroachment into religious space, but that he did so in a naïve and irresponsible manner. She points out that legal pluralism actually deprives members of minority communities of the rights and liberties they are entitled to. Manea has interviewed leading members of the Islamic Sharia Council (ISC) and other leading advocates of shari'a councils. She shows from her records of these interviews, and transcripts of other interviews, that the leading people in the ISC support child marriage and have said things like "a man should not be questioned why he hit his wife." (p101) She argues that suggesting that people have a right to appeal somewhere else does not take into account the pressure that women feel to comply with community pressure.

Manea criticises Williams for emphasising 'dignity' which lacks a clear definition, whilst avoiding discussing 'human rights' which are well defined. She also takes Williams to task for claiming that we can distinguish between two types of shari'a. She argues that this distinction lacks any substance, and in reality will lead to the worst type of shari'a being implemented. She points out that Williams ignored "the actual practice of Islamic law in modern history and the discourse of political Islamism," which was hypocritical of him,  and has real life consequences for the lives of women impacted by these courts.

Most pointedly, Manea shows that the level of discrimination allowed in Britain is actually greater than that in many Islamic countries. Some shari'a councils refuse to accept the legitimacy of a civil divorce, though they would be obliged to do so in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia, and Morocco. In other cases, sharia councils have insisted that women who refuse to return to their husbands, must return their children to their husbands, after which there is a high risk of child abduction. In yet other cases, child abuse has been dealt with without going to the relevant civil authorities. In Pakistan, and many other Islamic countries, registration of marriages and divorces is compulsory which then protects the rights of women.  Britain, by contrast, is reluctant to force the Muslim minority to abide by the law of the land due to what she calls "a bizarre cultural sensitivity." (p115) This leaves Britain with nothing less than "legally sanctioned discrimination." (p120)

Manea's policy recommendations are clear and unambiguous. It should be mandatory to have a civil marriage before contracting any religious marriage. This should be enforced and backed up with a nationwide campaign to register all Islamic marriages. Polygamy should be punished. Islamic authorities should be required to recognise civil divorces. Shari'a courts should be abolished and all citizens treated as equal before the law.

Manea has issued a devastating critique of legal pluralism, the assumptions behind it and its outworking in the UK. Anyone concerned about human rights and the welfare of women in the UK should read this book. I hope that the government listens to it too and adopts her proposals to eradicate the legally sanctioned discrimination of shari'a courts that we have today.

Related Links: 
Professor Boycotts Government’s Sharia Review  
Sharia council inquiry criticised  
Independent review into sharia law launched