By Homa Khaleeli
1 March 2017
On a freezing, rainswept Sunday in a
conference room in Birmingham Central mosque, a young woman in a black padded
jacket is crying quietly. Her name is Zaynab and as she lifts up her glasses to
rub at her eyes, one of the three religious scholars sitting opposite her
starts to speak.
“The panel is in agreement, this marriage
is to be dissolved today, Zaynab,” says Dr Amra Bone, one of the only female
Sharia council judges in the country. “It doesn’t have the ingredients of an Islamic
marriage; there is no love, trust, compassion or respect. You have an Iddah
[waiting] period of three menstrual cycles and you are then free to marry
As Zaynab collects her paperwork, Bone’s
colleague, Shaykh Talha Bukhari, an elderly man with a white beard, turns to
me. “Marriage is not for shedding tears,” he says quietly, “but here they are
I am at the mosque’s Sharia council, which
in the past year has dealt with 400 requests for divorce. Sharia councils –
often mislabelled as Sharia courts – have a sinister reputation in the UK. Like
Halal meat and the Niqab, they are a dog whistle for those seeking to imply
that there is a creeping Islamification of the UK. In part, this is because
Sharia – Islamic – law is synonymous in many people’s minds with terrifying
punishments such as stoning. The reality of the councils is much less
bloodthirsty but there are still reasons to worry.
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). They are not the only religious councils – there
are also the Jewish Orthodox Beth Din, and Catholic tribunals. The Sharia
councils are often accused of operating a “parallel legal system” in the UK,
but their rulings have no legal standing here or abroad, and they have no
enforcement powers. As unofficial bodies, they also have no jurisdiction over
custody or financial issues. What they rely on is the weight that religious
rulings carry in the Muslim community.
Surprisingly little is known about the
councils – even down to how many there are in the UK (estimates range from 30
to 80). Some, like Birmingham’s, are large and long established; others are
informal, backroom affairs. Individual imams also carry out the same functions,
complicating their definition. Samia Bano, a senior lecturer in law at Soas
University of London who has written a book on Sharia councils, jokes that they
are so informal “I could open one tomorrow”. Since cuts to legal aid made civil
divorces more expensive, more couples than ever are turning to them. Yet their
critics say they pose a serious threat to Muslim women in the UK.
Prompted by fears that they were
discriminatory, Theresa May launched a government inquiry in May last year.
Just a month later, the Home Affairs Committee announced its own. In December,
the Casey Review by Dame Louise Casey into integration included claims that
Sharia councils “supported the values of extremists, condoned wife-beating,
ignored marital rape and allowed forced marriages”. And in January, a bill
aimed at Sharia councils put forward by the independent peer Baroness Cox (to
bring equality legislation to bear on arbitration and mediation services) had
its second reading in the House of Lords, six years after she first began
lobbying for one.
Women’s groups, meanwhile, have been
raising the alarm for some years. Southall Black Sisters, which addresses the
needs of BAME women, calls the councils patriarchal and regressive and wants
them shut down. Women are being pressured to return to abusive husbands, it
says, and they interfere with child custody and financial matters. Muslim
women’s groups accuse Sharia councils of ignoring women’s rights under Islamic,
as well as civil, law and 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.
Unsurprisingly, given their negative press,
Sharia councils are wary of media interest. Birmingham is confident enough
about its reputation to be an exception.
Saba Butt is the council’s administrator.
In the months before today’s panel meeting, she has collected testimony and
paperwork from the spouses involved in each case, starting with the wives. The
women are asked if they want to go through a reconciliation process, or
straight to the panel for a decision (the councils offer couples mediation).
Islamic marriages are contracts (Nikahs), signed by both parties and two
witnesses. Each must contain an amount of money (Mehr) that is granted
to the wife. While both men and women can obtain a divorce in Islam, the
process is simpler for men (unless the woman has included an equal right to
divorce in the contract, and few do).
Subject to various conditions and
restrictions, husbands can end the marriage simply by declaring they are
divorcing their wife – known as a Talaq. A wife can also initiate a divorce
(known as a Khula), and if the husband agrees, the marriage can be
ended. If he contests it, a third party can dissolve the contract – which is
where Sharia councils step in. Without the council rulings, the panel tell me,
many women feel they are still married in the sight of God – even if they have
had a civil divorce.
During the afternoon, I watch women file
in, one by one, as seven cases are heard. Some are alone, others have relatives
with them; some are mothers. There is a teaching assistant and an eye
specialist among them, and most hearings are in English (two women prefer to
speak in Urdu). All but one have their marriages dissolved.
Zaynab is a young mother. She explains that
her marriage fell apart in 2014, and the last time she saw her husband was when
he tried to drunkenly break into her home. He has since moved away.
The three scholars question her gently. Is
her marriage registered under English law? No, her husband was worried it would
affect his benefits. Did he support her and their children financially? Never.
Did he have problems with addiction and gambling? Yes. They shake their heads.
Bone says that the panel all work as
volunteers and feel it is their Islamic duty to help the community resolve
conflicts. Bukhari recites a story of how the prophet Muhammad ended a woman’s
marriage because “she did not like being with her husband”.
“A marriage is not for suffering or for
sacrifice,” he says.
Yet because each council operates alone,
with rulings based on its panel’s personal knowledge and interpretation of
religious laws, their approach and decisions can vary wildly. Bano says some of
the 25 women she interviewed for her book found Sharia councils patriarchal and
problematic. Often women got round this by “forum shopping” for a council that
suited them. Yet when things go wrong, there is no accountability.
Amara, a 45-year-old lawyer from London,
went to see a Sharia council in her 20s. During her three-year marriage, she
says her husband hit her, tried to push her down the stairs when she was
pregnant, and kept her prisoner for three days. She took out an injunction
against him, began civil divorce proceedings, and finally approached a Sharia
Her voice shakes as she remembers how the
three panel judges – all elderly men – reacted. “They asked things like: ‘What
did you do to provoke him?’” Her husband had been restricted by the court to
supervised contact with their children because of his violence, yet the judges
insisted on talking about access. “All they cared about was his relationship
with the children – not their safety, or my safety.”
Amara dropped the case, but later
approached the Muslim College in Ealing. This, she says, “was a completely
different experience”. Her case was dealt with in writing, professionally, and
resolved within a few months.
One pressing problem is the increasing
number of Muslim couples who are at the mercy of Sharia councils because they
have had religious ceremonies to mark their marriage but are not legally
married under UK law. There is no central registry of Islamic marriages
(marriages do not have to take place in a mosque, and you do not need an imam),
so it is impossible to know how many couples have had only religious services –
Aina Khan, a lawyer and campaigner, has estimated that there could be 100,000
couples in Britain (under the current Marriage Act, only Anglicans, Quakers and
Jews are obliged to register their marriage).
“In the past five years there has been a
steep increase [in couples having only religious marriages]. It used to be
about half [of my clients], now it has crept up to 80%,” says Khan. Some
couples intend to have a civil service at a later date, others do not realise
an Islamic marriage undertaken in the UK is not legally recognised; some feel
it is only a religious marriage that is important to them.
Khan says she has also seen an increase in
men wanting to avoid losing money or property in a divorce. “Instead of a
prenuptial agreement, men are refusing a legal marriage. Women are worried
about losing their Rishta [marriage proposal] so they say: ‘OK’.” Yet
this means these Muslim women do not have legal protection, even if they have
given up work to look after children. Women risk being turned out of their
homes with nothing if their marriages break down – the Casey Review explains
that this can be particularly worrying with the “lower levels of female
employment, lower levels of English language and, anecdotally at least, a lack
of awareness of other civil rights” in Muslim communities.
Muslim women who have civil marriages will
need a civil divorce too. But those with no civil marriage have to turn to
Sharia councils and risk being left in limbo for years. Khan says one of her
clients had started a new relationship and was pregnant with a child with still
no sign of her Islamic divorce from the Sharia council she applied to.
Khan fears councils are becoming
increasingly misogynistic and inefficient. “Sadly they have become a victim of
their own success – they are overworked. The Salafi [ultra-conservative]
influence on religion has brought in a real misogyny. They have become more
hardline and anti-female.”
This can be seen in the most frightening
complaint against Sharia councils – that with divorce permissible but
discouraged by Islam, women are pressured into mediation with violent partners
– or even reconciliation. Savin Bapir-Tarvey, a psychologist with the Iranian
and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO), sees around 15 clients a week,
many of whom are extremely vulnerable. She says cultural concepts such as
honour are used to manipulate women. “They have experienced severe abuse and
their children have witnessed it,” she says, but they are told that “to leave
would bring shame on the family”.
Even marital rape can be ignored. “Women
who have been through FGM might not make that clear [to their new husbands],
but they might say they don’t want to have sex. One woman was told it was her
duty – and she should pray while her husband has sex with her – basically while
he raped her.”
Bone is clear on the subject of domestic
violence: “The Islamic fundamental of marriage is that a woman should feel
safe.” If there was violence, “we would go straight ahead and dissolve it”. She
also disputes another criticism – that a woman’s testimony at a Sharia council
is given half the weight of a man’s, insisting that this is not true in her
council and is a misinterpretation of Sharia law in general.
Over at the well known Islamic Cultural
Centre and London Central mosque in Regent’s Park, director Ahmad al-Dubayan is
trying to reform councils from within. It has set up a board of Sharia councils
– 18 so far – with a code of conduct. Dubayan tells me he would like to see
less expensive, fairer charges for Islamic divorces (some women pay £400, men
considerably less) and an end to delays. He says many Muslims do not understand
their marriage rights under Islamic law and that they are putting together a
manual to rectify this. There are certainly good experiences amid the horror
stories. Khatija from the East Midlands tells me that when she was pregnant
with her second child in 2003, she began civil divorce proceedings for coercive
control, but her husband defended it. “At that point, coercive control was not
a separate offence [in English law]. The judge was appalling. He told me I
didn’t seem to have enough reason for a divorce.” Khatija was told to wait
until the pair had been separated for five years – which took until 2009.
It was the Sharia council in Dewsbury, she
says, who took the abuse seriously, arranging an Islamic divorce in a matter of
months. “The imam I dealt with was very, very kind. I explained how I wasn’t
allowed out of the house, even when I was with my parents in the UK [her
husband lived abroad] – he would still control me. Before I went out, I would
have to ring to check with him.”
Southall Black Sisters, however, is firm in
its opposition. Religion and family law are too dangerous a mix to allow Sharia
councils to continue to operate. “Religion inherently discriminates against
women,” stresses director Pragna Patel. “You cannot access justice if the
people who are violating your rights are dispensing it.”
Along with other secular women’s groups, it
has boycotted the government inquiry, pointing out that it is headed by a
theologian rather than a judge, and has Islamic scholars in place of human
rights experts. Sharia council supporters point out that women choose to have
Islamic divorces of their own free will yet Patel says this ignores the fact
that they do so to avoid being “treated as outcasts” by conservative
communities, who view divorce as shameful.
Bano agrees that state law, however
imperfect, “is the only system that Muslim and vulnerable women have for
protection” and “in family law matters or in issues of vulnerability and
marginalisation we should never have a delegation into the community”.
IKWRO is considering another way to take on
Sharia councils. They are looking for a test case to prove that “marital
captivity” – refusing to give a woman a religious divorce – is a form of forced
marriage. If men were fearful of being prosecuted under this legislation, the
group says, there would be no need for Sharia councils.
Yet Muslim women’s groups argue that women
who feel they need a religious divorce should not be left without an avenue to
obtain one, while Khan says changing the Marriage Act to ensure all marriages
are registered would help protect women. A clause in the Islamic marriage
contract could then make civil divorces valid Islamically.
Alongside this, she suggests ensuring there
are more female Sharia judges, and making councils more accountable with a
central governing body to ensure all decisions comply with British law. “As a
community we should be a beacon on how to have a happy family life, and how to
end a marriage in dignity if it goes wrong,” she says.
For the women at Birmingham Sharia council,
at least, the day has brought some relief. It’s dark outside when the last
applicant is told her marriage is dissolved, and she will soon be free to marry
again. “That’s the last thing on my mind,” she says quickly.