Seeking a religious divorce: Sharia councils in Britain
On March 1, The Guardian published a provocative article on sharia councils in Britain, which outlined concerns that Muslims and non-Muslims alike have expressed regarding these unofficial regulatory bodies. Established alongside other religious councils, such as Jewish Orthodox Beth Din and Catholic tribunals, sharia councils are charged with applying Muslim family law to the cases they encounter. As author Homa Khaleeli explains, their rulings do not have legal standing in (and cannot be enforced by) British courts. Their rulings do, however, carry significant weight within the Muslim community, and they are intended to fill a specific need within that community. In Khaleeli's words,
"Almost all the sharia councils, which first appeared in the UK in the 1980s, were founded to facilitate Islamic divorces for Muslim women who need a religious scholar to end their marriage where their husbands don’t consent (they may also offer religious advice on inheritance, wills or issue religious rulings)."
The councils are not without their faults, however. Khaleeli outlines the criticisms that Muslim women's groups have lodged against these councils, pointing to the significant harms that they may in fact be causing. Sharia councils have been accused of
"... ignoring women’s rights under Islamic, as well as civil, law and [Muslim women's groups] cite hair-raising cases of women being told to endure marital rape and polygamy. The Muslim Women’s Network points to an instance where a woman was being repeatedly raped by her husband, who had also married again, but was told to be “patient” by a mediator from a sharia council. They say the councils should be reformed, until an alternative way of seeking a religious divorce can be found."
Having gained a "sinister reputation" in the U.K., sharia councils are now the subject of official inquiries by various arms of the British government. This article raises interesting questions about the relationship between religion and family law. One group that is vocally opposed to the councils, Southall Black Sisters, believes that "religion and family law are too dangerous a mix to allow sharia councils to continue to operate." Director Pragna Patel takes this critique even further, arguing that "religion inherently discriminates against women,"
Khaleeli's exploration of sharia councils offers much to reflect upon, as does Patel's all-encompassing view of religion as inherently discriminatory and perhaps even misogynistic. Further, the Muslim Women's Network's call for "alternative way[s] of seeking a religious divorce" highlights the fact that certain religious communities will continue to require methods of divorcing that are religiously significant rather than just legally binding. Alternatives will have to meet this need, while offering Muslim women a family law forum that both honours and promotes their rights, well-being (physical, emotional, and spiritual), and best interests.
Read the full article here.