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MP and former lawyer defends use of sharia 'courts'

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An SNP MP and former lawyer has defended her use of sharia law in family disputes, according to The Times.

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh MP, who used to be a solicitor, had used sharia law in divorce settlements for Muslim couples.

She claimed that she helped them to reach child custody agreements in ways "that are reflective of their interpretation of what Islam says".

"Sometimes you will see, despite the fact that Scots law says X, that people say, 'I'm quite happy for my son to live with the dad', or something like that, so long as everything is agreed," she went on.

Before she was elected to the Westminster parliament last May, Ms Ahmed-Sheikh was a partner at Hamilton Burns solicitors, and was involved with setting up sharia-compliant divorce and child custody agreements.

This firm was the first in Scotland to offer sharia legal advice in addition to Scottish law.

Defending the use of these sharia-compliant agreements, at an 'Islamophobia' conference in Dublin, she said:

"It’s not about giving Sharia advice but creating a will that is Sharia compliant or a separation agreement that is Sharia compliant.

"If it’s agreed by both parties and agreed by a sheriff in a court of law, there are no difficulties," the Ochil and South Perthshire MP added. 

Sharia councils and the mistreatment of women

The use of sharia law in the UK has raised concerns, as reports have indicated that sharia 'courts' fail to protect women from violence and abuse.

At present there are an estimated 30 sharia councils operating in the UK. The so-called 'courts' issue Islamic divorce certificates and advice on aspects of religious law.

In December, a Dutch researcher made public her findings of sharia councils, revealing evidence that women were being mistreated.

Machteld Zee had gained access to two councils in July 2013 as part of her law PhD research.

She found that the judges were not a "neutral party" but were "always in favour of the man", even in cases of domestic violence and maltreatment.

Many women are unaware that they have recourse outside of these 'courts', or they come under community pressures to submit to the rulings of sharia councils.

Christian Concern's Chief Executive Andrea Williams has said that advocating the use of sharia law in family matters is to support a system where women suffer injustice.

"Many women – some of whom speak little to no English are led to believe that bringing family disputes to sharia law is their only option. Yet it is the men who benefit, whilst the women are given little say, and children can be forced to live with their fathers even if they are abusive."

Baroness Cox's bill 

Baroness Cox has passed a bill through the House of Lords that seeks to challenge the operation of these parallel legal systems.

The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, which has received support from Christian Concern and is sponsored by Fiona Bruce MP, is now progressing through the House of Commons.

If passed, the bill will seek to protect those who are susceptible to mistreatment under sharia law – such as women and children.

Baroness Cox told the House of Lords: "The Bill will strengthen the position of vulnerable women who need protection from exploitation. It will ensure that all such women, whatever sect or creed, get the help they need to enjoy full lives."

The second reading in the Commons will take place on 11 March. 

Sharia law 'discriminatory'

Ms Ahmed-Sheikh claimed that the sharia-compliant legal advice given at her law firm has nothing to do with sharia councils.

Maryam Namazie, a former Muslim and spokeswoman for the group One Law for All, has criticised the use of sharia at Hamilton Burns, however.

She said that sharia law is by nature "discriminatory" and "antithetical" to the principles of British law, particularly in family matters.

Andrea Williams has questioned how an MP, representing the British legal system, can publically defend the use of sharia.

"The role of an MP is surely to support laws that promote the good of all citizens, not to defend a parallel legal system that is at odds with ours and inherently discriminatory and unjust towards women and 'non-Muslims'," she said.  

Related Links:
Lawyer MP backs use of Sharia in family disputes (Times £)
Women treated as second class citizens by sharia 'courts' 
Bill challengeing the use of sharia courts clears the House of Lords