Two controversial government inquiries are being made in the services provided by Sharia councils in the UK, and have been met with criticism by some Muslim women. There are around 30 Sharia councils in Britain, which are tribunals where religious scholars use Islamic laws to resolve domestic problems or social dilemmas. A large part of marriages within the Islamic community are religious-only, without having legal validity, thus the only necessary divorce is the religious one. Additionally, in cases of civil-and-religious marriages, one’s community might not accept the end of marriage without also obtaining a religious divorce.
Both of the inquiries into the UK’s Sharia councils were ordered within the last six months – one by Theresa May and the other by Home Affairs Select Committee. The reason for these inquires is to see how Sharia councils treat women with regards to family problems and during divorce processes. Some women reported to the BBC that Sharia councils pressured them to mediate with their abusive husbands.
More than a hundred women have signed a Muslims Women Network UK’s (MWNUK) open letter, asking for the inquires to work towards eliminating discrimination, rather than towards shutting down the councils. They suggest that if the councils are to be closed, rather than improved, the practice would simply move underground and become more discriminative.
MWNUK confirms that discrimination may occur in cases of individual imams. However, Khola Hasan, a female scholar sitting on a Sharia council in the UK, explains: ”We cannot tar all Sharia Councils with the same brush and say they are all misogynistic and unfair to women.”
A suggested solution is for the government to make it obligatory for the Islamic community to include civil marriage in the religious one, so that women could obtain a civil divorce. This would allow them to keep their religious practices, while at the same time giving them protection during the religious divorce.
One of the principal criticisms of the ongoing inquires is the danger of religious discrimination while observing human rights through strictly secular lenses. MWNUK asks for a diversity of Muslim women to be heard, rather than having others speak instead of them, generalizing what Muslim women feel based on a small number of marginal stories, whether good or bad.