Women and children are being locked into unhappy marriages by the rulings of Sharia councils. Although council judgments have no legal basis in this country, decisions made by Muslim leaders presiding over these gatherings often keep women in marriages when communal relations or moral rectitude are perceived to be under threat.
Although no official figures exist for their numbers or frequency, a Guardian report suggested that there were around 30 active Sharia councils in the UK with 95% of their business taken up by divorce-related cases – predominately that of a female partner wishing to part from her husband – and relationship mediation.
As part of the Government's Counter-Extremism Strategy, Home Secretary Teresa May has also commissioned an independent inquiry into the role of Sharia courts in the UK due early next year.
Minister for Countering Extremism Lord Ahmad said: "The Government is committed to an independent review to understand the extent to which Sharia may be being misused, or applied in a way which is incompatible with the law in the UK. This review will be formally established shortly and we expect an initial report to be issued to the Home Secretary in 2016."
As for the day-to-day business of the Sharia councils, however, one of the intractable issues they often face is that grounds for divorce involve a myriad of issues, some of which have troubling gravitas, such as domestic violence or psychological abuse. It is precisely this issue that necessitates a greater demystification of the Sharia court process in this country in order to protect women from potentially life-threatening scenarios.
Almost all of the divorce hearing requests come from women who feel a Sharia divorce certificate is needed for community acceptance, and to avoid being ostracised. Furthermore there is an argument to be made that the advice given within the courts – issuing rulings according to Islamic law – does not help them close a chapter in their lives but instead ends up placing them in further inescapable danger for raising the issue in the first place.
While the intentions of the hearings may be gleaned from a determination to provide a cogent and fair resolution under Islamic law, the reality is that fear of criticising the consequences of what the courts involve arguably does a great disservice to women. The abuse and violence towards them often increases after seeking protection from the Sharia courts themselves.
Mandy Sanghera, a human rights advocate who has worked with women using Sharia courts, said: "We need to get away from cultural sensitivity. We need to be there to support the most vulnerable women within society, especially in situations where these courts ensure that women are being forced to stay in marriages and suffer horrendous abuse because they do not have any financial recourse or rights. For example, often they are threatened that they can't see their children or are bullied into staying in marriages that exist through a prism of relentless abuse and degradation."
Speaking about a case she was involved in, Mandy said: "A London woman had also requested a divorce (khula) from an abusive husband and the woman was told to stick by him. When I challenged it, they brought an imam, who bullied her and said: 'If you go, your husband has the right to have the children under Sharia law.' She felt forced to stay in the marriage."
Polly Harrar, founder of The Sharan Project, which assists women who have experienced domestic violence and abuse commented: "One of the biggest challenges we face as a charity is that despite living in the UK, Sharia is often preferred by many to deal with issues such as family disputes or divorce either instead of or as well as the English legal system. Where parallels exist, there should never be a conflict with the law of the land as this can result in cultural conflict and not being afforded the same protection as others.
"In our experience many clients have had negative experiences with many discouraged from taking further action or asked to mediate even where abuse has been disclosed, often this can lead to further violence, honour related abuse, harassment and in some cases, disownment. Where the majority of Sharia courts are run by men, there is little if any specialist support or safe spaces for women to feel comfortable to come forward."
So how could we potentially move forward from a position that while promising to help women resolve a situation through legal recourse, in fact actually hinders them and even sometimes places them in physical danger?
Polly Harrar feels that while "There are 2.7 million Muslims living in the UK" simply removing Sharia courts is "too simplistic a solution". She maintains that "there are pockets of good practice where imams ensure women filing for a divorce are able to do so easily and with dignity and respect; however there is no consistency or national framework to ensure every woman receives the same level of support, creating a postcode lottery for those who seek redress under Sharia."
She adds: "More educational awareness is a good starting point to tackle these issues as well as compulsory registration of all marriages, but we also need to work with the community to ensure real change comes from within and to ensure national and specialist services work together."
As the Home Secretary gets set to oversee the wider probe that will look into the specifics of how Sharia courts are run, it is vital not to lose sight of the fact that the women – rather than the men – are particularly vulnerable within their confines.
Saurav Dutt is an author and human rights advocate