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Professor Boycotts Government's Sharia Review

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In this piece, Tim Dieppe discusses news that a professor and women's rights campaigner has decided to boycott the government's review of sharia courts. Professor Elham Manea believes that the inquiry will not address the discriminatory nature of sharia courts. 

Professor Elham Manea has refused to testify to the government’s Independent Review into the application of sharia Law in England and Wales.

A statement explains:

"This is because of her concern about the terms of reference of the panel; the inclusion of a number of Islamic scholars on the panel, who are part of the system they are supposed to be investigating, rather than exclusively judges, lawyers and human rights experts to examine a human rights issue; the specific issues before the Inquiry, which did not include among others the type of law being implemented and the role of Islamic extremism in the promotion of this parallel legal system, as well as the implications for the scope and impartiality of the Inquiry.

"While she welcomes the Inquiry and respects the Chairperson, Manea is of the opinion that the Inquiry in its current form and terms of reference will not be in a position to address the discriminatory nature of the law applied in the parallel legal system of Sharia law in the UK and the Islamist extremism that feeds it."

This follows an open letter last month to, then Home Secretary, Theresa May which criticised the makeup of the inquiry, and which was signed by multiple human rights organisations and campaigners, including Elham Manea. The letter called on the government to change the terms of reference, appoint a judge to head the inquiry, and to appoint human rights experts to the panel. Organisers then called for women’s rights campaigners and organisations to boycott the inquiry, labelling it a whitewash after they received no response from the government.

Professor Manea has written an in-depth analysis of the issues around sharia courts in the UK. I have written a review of her book, "Women and Shari’a Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK" here. She quotes from her own interviews with leading members of the Islamic Sharia Council, and argues that what we have with these sharia courts is nothing less than legally sanctioned discrimination. Her policy recommendations are very clear; it should be mandatory to have a civil marriage before contracting any religious marriage. This means that women will have the protections afforded to them by the law. She points out that this is the practice in many Islamic countries and it is only what she calls a "bizarre cultural sensitivity" that prevents us from enforcing this here.

Women’s rights campaigner Baroness Cox has also expressed her strong reservations about the terms of reference of this inquiry. She has invited the government to adopt her Mediation and Arbitration Services (Equality) Bill which has strong support from all parties in both Houses of Parliament as well as from Muslim women’s organisations. This Bill would make clear that gender discrimination within arbitration systems is illegal and would make it a criminal offence to falsely claim legal jurisdiction.

It is now clear that the government’s review lacks credibility. If women’s rights organisations, and academics like Professor Manea, are boycotting it then it will be unable to function properly. Now that we have a new Home Secretary, there is an opportunity for this review to be scrapped. We already have substantive evidence of the discriminatory nature of these sharia councils. We also know that sharia law is inherently discriminatory and that the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that "sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy, as set forth in the Convention."

Ways to solve this problem are clear and uncontroversial and have widespread support. The government should enforce civil registration of religious marriages and adopt Baroness Cox’s Bill. We call on the new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd to scrap the review and take these actions as soon as possible.

Related Links: 
Book Review: 'Women and Shar'ia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK' 
Sharia council inquiry criticised  
Independent review into sharia law launched
Melanie Philipps: May needs to wake up to the reality of Sharia (Times £)
Whitewashing Sharia councils in the UK? (Open Democracy)
Organisers call on women’s rights campaigners and organisations to boycott the Sharia law inquiry (One Law for All)
Statement by Elham Manea (European Foundation for Democracy)