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Women treated as second-class citizens by sharia 'courts'

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A Dutch researcher has uncovered evidence of women being mistreated in so-called sharia courts in the UK.

Machteld Zee gained a high level of access to two sharia ‘courts’, one in London and another in Birmingham, in July 2013.

She decided to study British sharia councils as part of her law PhD research. After her emails to the sharia ‘courts’ themselves went unanswered, a professor at Kings College provided Ms Zee with some contacts.

To her surprise, she was then invited to attend two different sharia councils. Her findings are discussed in her book, Choosing Sharia?, which will be launched in January. 

Failure to protect

Baroness Cox’s bill, which is similarly critical of the harmful impacts of sharia councils on women, began its committee stage today in Parliament. The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill aims to tackle the failure of sharia councils to adequately protect women from violence and abuse.

It is estimated that around 30 sharia councils operate in Britain today. The ‘courts’ issue Islamic divorce certificates and advice on aspects of religious law.

Sharia divorce ‘courts’ are acknowledged to be mediation and arbitration bodies under the 1996 Arbitration Act.

Ms Zee, however, concluded that the judges “are not a neutral third party” and are “always in favour of the man”. 

In its recently published “Counter-Extremism Strategy”, the government acknowledged that concerns have been raised about the compatibility of sharia ‘courts’ with the principles of English law. Women within Muslim communities can feel pressured into relying on these ‘courts’, rather than seeking British justice, or they may not be aware that they have any alternative. 


Women at receiving end of violence or maltreatment

Of the Islamic Sharia Council in east London’s Leyton neighbourhood, Ms Zee observed:

“One judge said: ‘Under Islam, we should reconcile marriages even if there is violence’. They don’t care. It was shocking”.

Ms Zee stated that, according to a qadi (Islamic judge), the ‘court’ has 600 to 800 cases a year involving “divorce-seeking women who are on the receiving end of violence or maltreatment”.

Ms Zee also said that problems arise in custody cases where women aren’t aware they have recourse to the British justice system:

“The woman has no idea this is a religious institution and she should go to a secular court [for her children’s interests] – and once she finds out, a British judge won’t switch parents after a few months.”

Oppression and abuse

She recounted a case with a woman who wished the qadis to intervene, as she was being verbally and physically abused by her husband.

Ms Zee said:

“[The woman] says: ‘He oppressed me to the maximum, he is violent, [and] physically treats me like a dog’. She wears a headscarf on his request. With ‘every little thing’ he threatens to divorce her.

“He is abusive both verbally and physically. She says he might have 10 wives for all she knows. He is currently in Tunisia.

“[The qadi] laughs a bit: ‘Why did you marry such a person?’”

Ms Zee also reported that some women were unable to divorce, because of the large sums of money their husbands demanded from them.

One qadi, she said, told a woman to accept a polygamous marriage instead of seeking a religious divorce.

Ms Zee also said that those who support sharia 'courts' out of a commitment to multiculturalism hold “a romanticised view of communal values”.

Please pray for a favourable outcome for Baroness Cox’s bill, as it progresses through committee stage in Parliament. Visit the Equal and Free website for more information.

Related News:
'Sharia law' bill progresses to next stage
Government to investigate use of Islamic law 
Many UK Muslims support Sharia law

Related Coverage:
Sharia courts in Britain lock women into 'marital captivity', study says (Independent)
UK: Sharia courts binding women into 'marital captivity', says study (IB Times)