Should British Courts Be Able To Grant Islamic Divorces?


The Law Of... granting Islamic divorces

As reported by The Guardian, an expert in sharia law plans to advise the House of Commons that UK courts should be able to issue Islamic divorces by putting a specialist unit in place, which would help to protect the rights of Muslim women.

The Law Of... granting Islamic divorces

Jenine Abdo, a solicitor in Family Law and specialist in divorce law based in Cardiff, comments on how Islamic divorces being registered under UK law is the first step to Muslim women achieving equality.

Elham Manea, an associate professor in Middle East studies at Zurich University, is advocating that civil marriages should be mandatory alongside religious ceremonies. She has also suggested that imams who don't stick to such rules should be subject to sanctions.

Discriminating Against Muslim Women

After spending 4 years researching sharia councils in the UK, Manea believes that these new policies would make "inherently discriminatory" sharia councils redundant as they're mainly used by women who want an Islamic divorce.

Under current sharia law, men are allowed to divorce their wives by saying 'talaq' 3 times, which means 'divorce' in Arabic. Women, however, cannot get divorced in this way and must obtain a judicial decree on specific grounds or even give up their financial rights to be granted a divorce from a religious judge. This isn't cheap, costing up to £400.

Civitas, a UK-based thinktank, estimates that there's around 85 sharia councils operating in the UK – these councils don't actually have any legal powers, but the decisions they make are seen as religiously binding.

Some of the evidence that's part of this inquiry suggests that many of the sharia councils in the UK condone the use of violence against married women, including wife beating, marital rape, and child marriage.

"Under sharia, men are in charge and women are treated as their property", Tory MP Nus Ghani comments. "This does not sit well under British law and cannot go unchallenged."

According to Manea, most of the women who approach these councils haven't formalised their marriages under British law and often have no choice but to give up their civil rights in order to be granted an Islamic divorce. Some women have also claimed that they've been pressured into mediation and reconciliation – even if they have been the victims of abuse at the hands of their husbands.

Abolish Sharia Councils?

Although the thought of getting rid of sharia councils might seem appealing to some, Amra Bone – the UK's first female sharia judge – doesn't think that this is the answer. For Bone, Sharia councils are "a necessity for people who do not have a recourse to civil courts because their marriages were not recognised." Speaking to BBC Radio 4, she added that without them, vulnerable women would be left "in limbo".

Bone, however, seems to be in the minority of individuals supporting the role of these councils as Manea – along with many women's rights groups – has suggested that these councils need to be abolished if Muslim women are to have any chance at being viewed as equal to men: "It's true women will be stuck if you don't provide a solution but that solution is not a parallel legal system. Interpretation in many Islamic countries including Tunisia and Morocco means a religious divorce automatically follows a civil one. It should be the same in Britain and a bureau within the courts should provide this service."

Also expressing concerns about how polygamy is becoming more mainstream in the UK, Manea has suggested that the only way forward is for Islamic marriages to be registered under UK law.

Commenting on the issue, the Muslim Law (Sharia) Council UK has said that it encourages Islamic marriages to be registered under UK law too. Moulana Raza, executive secretary for the council, added: "We strongly believe that this is the only way of securing financial and legal rights of married Muslim women in the UK. We would welcome any action in this respect by the government."

"We believe the sharia councils are an additional burden on the shoulders of the Muslim community. In our opinion, there are some councils which are geographically located in the UK, ideologically, but they are not in Britain."

Jenine comments:

"Women seeking Islamic divorces often have to compromise and relinquish some of their rights – this is really unfair and problematic. For example, if a woman walks away from a marriage without any financial support, how will she look after herself and her children?"

"Many women who have married under Islamic/sharia law often don't know what their legal rights or entitlements are, which is also really troubling. As they haven't registered their marriage under the law of England and Wales, I'm often quite restricted in the type of advice that I can give them. But, if the option was there for Islamic marriages to be registered under UK law, then women who are in desperate need of help can access the legal support that they need."

"There are some great organisations that are dedicated to helping women in difficult situations – such as BAWSO, which I'm closely affiliated with – but the law needs to go further and protect Muslim women's rights."

"Let's hope that the government work with sharia councils to establish a more equal and fair system of marriage and divorce for Muslim women."

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