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Stop using Muslim women as political football

23rd Feb 2018
Stop using Muslim women as political football

The British Government is weighing up its options with regard to the future of Sharia councils after a review was unable to find any reason to ban them, only to rule instead that their closure is “not a viable option.” The voluntary tribunals were found to fulfil a need for Muslims as Nikkah marriages are not recognised under English law and in some cases may be the only avenue to obtain a religious divorce. They are not operation centres of a parallel system of justice as has been claimed by the media, politicians and secular NGOs.

The review was ordered two years ago by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, to examine ways in which “Sharia may be being used which may cause harm in communities.” At the centre were the usual allegations about the oppression of Muslim women and rather mischievously was held as part of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy.

Rather than discriminating against women, the largely secular review evidenced that in 90 percent of cases it was women who used the councils to obtain a religious divorce.
In an open submission to the inquiry, the Muslim Women’s Network UK was scathing about the way the largely secular review was being run.

“When it comes to matters of faith, Muslim women should be speaking for themselves. However, it appears that the voices of these very women that the investigators should listen to are being marginalised,” their submission supported by over 100 leading Muslim women warned.

“On one hand, religious conservatives who claim that discrimination does not take place, (by pointing to the positive experiences of women), disregard why some are subjected to unfair practices during the Islamic divorce process. On the other hand, some activists regard all faith practices as discriminatory and also conflate misogyny and patriarchy with extremism. This is unhelpful in the current political climate because this can fuel Islamophobia further; it is Muslim women who tend to be most at risk of racist and xenophobic attacks.”

It suggested that the review could have been held as a part of the Government’s obligations to women under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination. (CEDAW).

“By accepting this international treaty the UK Government is required to enshrine gender equality in its domestic legislation and policies anyway. This must include all matters relating to marriage and divorce which means eliminating discriminatory aspects of family law regimes whether civil code, religious law or ethnic custom.”

Despite the grave concerns about the divisive nature of the review, only three main recommendations were made, including a call for regulation that was not unanimous and was immediately rejected by the Government.

“Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws,” the Home Office Spokesperson said.

“In Britain, we have a long tradition of freedom of worship and religious tolerance, where many people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices and benefit from their guidance. The Government has no intention of changing this position.” The situation is similar for the Jewish Beth Din and Roman Catholic tribunals where there is no state interference.

As a halfway house, the review’s first recommendation, which the Government is considering, proposes legislative amendments to the Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

This is to ensure that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage ceremony, bringing Muslims in line with Christian and Jewish marriage in the eyes of the law even though the vast majority, if not all mosques, already conform with the precondition those which are officially licensed. Still excluded would be Muslims who marry abroad.

The conflict is caused by differences between religious and secular laws as happens for all faiths that need accommodating by the state and should be investigated and resolved as such. The Government must stop misleadingly seeing Muslims through the lens of extremism and in particular using Muslim women as political football as is also the essence of the latest issue with Ofsted backing a Head Teacher who supports banning the hijab for infant girls in defiance of school governors and parents. Other faith communities are not targeted by the Government in the same way.


[Map of UK. Creative Commons]

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