The Review and Background

A major independent review examining the application of Sharia councils in England and Wales has been published[1]. The review was chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui OBE and advised by two Imams[2]. It was launched by the UK government in 2016 to examine concerns Sharia law was being applied in a manner incompatible with UK law, and in particular, whether it was facilitating discriminatory practices against women[3].

The review states, “[t]he recommendations included in this report (…) are designed to promote equality between religions in ways that should challenge misconceptions of a parallel legal system and encourage integration”[4]. This is in line with the review’s understanding of the relationship between religion and state which is also defined within the report: “It is important that all religious communities should, insofar as it is reasonably practicable to do so, be treated alike by the state and also that the state should ensure, so far as it can, that all adherents to faith communities have their convention rights respected”[5].

Sharia councils do not have any legal authority in the UK, and thus if they make recommendations that are inconsistent with UK law, UK law will prevail[6]. Despite this, some in the UK consider Sharia councils to be a parallel legal system to UK law, perhaps because they are often represented as ‘courts’[7]. They have a significant influence in decision-making regarding issues such as divorce in the Muslim community[8], and the review’s findings indicate that most of those using the councils (over 90%) are women seeking a divorce[9]. The report states that, while discriminatory practices do exist within Sharia councils, banning these councils would be counter-productive for the women using them. Good practice within them should instead be ensured[10]. It also does note that there is much evidence of existing good practice within these councils, such as in their reporting of child protection and family violence issues to the police, and their referral of users to civil courts where necessary[11].

The review proposes the civil registration of all Islamic marriages to be legally required in order to afford women legal protections should the couple divorce[12]. Such a change requires legislative changes to the UK’s Marriage Act 1949, and would afford the same legislative regulations to Islamic marriage as are afforded to Christian and Jewish marriage[13]. The report states that this would afford a greater number of women “the full protection afforded to them in family law and the right to a civil divorce”, which would in turn lessen their need to attend sharia councils and simplify the decision process of these councils[14].

The intent of these measures is thus “to gradually reduce the use and need for sharia councils”, which in the meantime should be regulated by a self-regulatory body with a code of practice designed by the sharia councils themselves, the report states. Many sharia councils were welcoming of this suggestion, according to the review, and it is further stated that “[t]he creation of a state facilitated or endorsed regulation or audit scheme will give legitimacy to the existence of alternative dispute resolution entities in the form of sharia councils”[15].

The review also recommends changes to section 10 A of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, including the insertion of Muslim marriage by Nikah, which would bring Islamic divorce in line with Jewish divorce and thus “ensure equality amongst all religions”[16]. These proposed changes to legislation have been picked up as matters of interest by several law societies and organisations[17].

The review finds that legislative changes should be accompanied by awareness campaigns to promote “cultural change” in Muslim communities “so that communities acknowledge women’s rights in civil law, especially in areas of marriage and divorce”. These campaigns should also promote understanding of the importance of following UK law to Sharia councils, and should raise awareness of publicly-funded legal resources that women have access to[18].

The conclusions of the review were drawn from “written and oral evidence from a wide range of sources”, including “a public call for evidence” targeted at those with experience of applying sharia law in the UK, and “oral evidence sessions with users of sharia councils, women’s rights groups, academics and lawyers, as well as other interested parties”[19].

The report notes that “[a]fter the review was launched there was also a boycott instigated by a number of women’s rights organisations. These groups were opposed to the review’s terms of reference and the selection of some of its panel and advisors”[20]. Annex C of the report contains a letter from a number of women’s rights groups which states that the government has frequently “kow-towed to demands” from those on the religious right, which has resulted in the accommodation of the “greatest human rights violations of minority women in the UK” through arbitration systems based on religious laws[21]. The letter also questions the review’s panel and its advisers, criticising them for their approach being too theological and not including enough specialists on women’s rights, and the extent of the review’s examination into “the full range of threats faced by people affected by religious laws, and indeed, by the State promoting these laws”[22]. The Muslim Women’s Network UK also sent a letter entitled ‘Muslim Women’s Voices Must be Prioritised in Shariah Inquiries’[23].

Reponses

Despite the fact that the body overseeing sharia councils would be self-regulatory, the body itself would be established by the government[24], which has received criticism from those arguing this could potentially alienate the Muslim community (a member of the panel on the review also shares this concern), and because the regulatory bodies for Catholic tribunals and Jewish Beth Din councils, both of which deal with religious divorces, do not involve the state[25]. However, in response to this, the chair of the review, Mona Siddiqui said she did not think the Muslim community would be alienated. She stated, “[t]his is not about Muslims versus anyone. This is about what is best for Muslim communities in the long term”[26]. In addition, she stated that other religious bodies dealing with divorce currently have more structures in place to regulate them than sharia councils, so the review’s recommendations cannot be suggested to be discriminatory[27].

However, this call for the UK government to set up a regulatory body has been rejected by the Home Office because of concerns it will legitimise Sharia law and also compromise the government’s position on promoting “freedom of worship and religious tolerance”[28]. A spokesperson for the Home Office said, “Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws”[29].

This decision has been criticised for leaving women unprotected and for pandering to right-wing views within their base[30]. However, the National Secular Society praised the decision, saying “[r]egulation of so-called sharia courts will only lend them legitimacy whilst doing nothing to ensure compatibility with anti-discrimination and human rights law” and that regulating them would contribute to facilitating a parallel legal system which undermines the rights of British citizens from minority communities[31]. The Home Office has said it will carefully consider the other findings from the review[32].

In response to the proposed changes to marriage legislation suggested in the review, an article published on the National Secular Society’s website states that, while they understand the importance of religious marriages being legally recognised, changing marriage legislation in these ways “would mean equality before the law being subsumed under the rubric of separate community rights”[33]. Therefore, in order to achieve true equality among all citizens, the article states that a secular legal system needs to be adopted which does not determine legislation on issues according to one’s religion[34].

Academics have reportedly criticised the review for deterring from “the actual problem regarding Muslim marriages”. Dr Vishal Vora, an expert in family and contract law, said the review “doesn’t seem to look at why [couples] may not be registering their marriages, which is a deeply complicated issue. The situation needs a bit more examination”[35]. Imam and expert in Islamic divorce, Islam Uddin, added that the review also failed to explore why religious traditions, such as the niqah, were important to Muslims[36].

A documentary on Channel 4 explored the issue of Muslim marriage not being automatically legally registered, and the effect of this on women, through a survey of Muslim women in Britain last year. The findings of, and mixed reactions to the documentary, including potential arguments why these legislative changes to the Marriage Act should not be made, are covered here: http://www.euro-islam.info/2018/01/16/channel-4s-documentary-truth-muslim-marriage-receives-mixed-reactions/, and relate to academics’ critiques of the Government’s review discussed above.

Breitbart was one of a number of right-wing publications which picked up on the story. It stated that the review had revealed “the British government to be unaware of exactly how many of the Islamic law councils are operating in the country” and the “systemic discrimination against women” in sharia councils, which it says left-wing politicians and campaigners have repeatedly ignored[37].

[1] HM Government, 2018.

[2] HM Government, 2018, 2&3.

[3] Thomas-Johnson, 2018; HM Government, 2018, 2&3.

[4] HM Government, 2018, 4.

[5] HM Government, 2018, 9.

[6] HM Government, 2018, 4.

[7] HM Government, 2018, 4.

[8] HM Government, 2018, 4.

[9] HM Government, 2018, 5.

[10] HM Government, 2018, 5.

[11] HM Government, 2018, 15.

[12] Thomas-Johnson, 2018; HM Government, 2018, 5.

[13] Thomas-Johnson, 2018; HM Government, 2018, 5.

[14] HM Government, 2018, 6.

[15] HM Government, 2018, 6&21.

[16] HM Government, 2018, 6.

[17] See Family Law Week, no date; Family Law, 2018.

[18] HM Government, 2018, 6.

[19] HM Government, 2018, 6.

[20] HM Government, 2018, 7.

[21] HM Government, 2018, 27; see also HM Government, 2018, 30-34.

[22] HM Government, 2018, 28-30.

[23] HM Government, 2018, 35-38.

[24] HM Government, 2018, 6.

[25] Thomas-Johnson, 2018.

[26] Thomas-Johnson, 2018.

[27] Thomas-Johnson, 2018.

[28] Browne, 2018; Sherwood, 2018.

[29] Browne, 2018; Agerholm, 2018.

[30] Browne, 2018.

[31] Browne, 2018.

[32] Sherwood, 2018.

[33] Rahman, 2018.

[34] Rahman, 2018.

[35] Colding, 2018.

[36] Colding, 2018.

[37] Kassam, 2018.

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Sources

Agerholm, H. (2018) ‘Sharia marriages should be registered under UK law, says independent review’. [online] 1 February. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/sharia-marriages-uk-law-registered-islamic-review-muslim-wedding-womens-rights-a8189541.html. [Accessed 7 February 2018].

Browne, G. (2018) ‘UK rejects proposals to regulate sharia councils’. [online] 2 February. https://www.thenational.ae/world/europe/uk-rejects-proposals-to-regulate-sharia-councils-1.701243. [Accessed 7 February 2018].

Colding, L. (2018) ‘Scholars say Sharia Law review is ‘inadequate’’. [online] 7 February. https://www.easterneye.eu/scholars-say-sharia-law-review-inadequate/. [Accessed 7 February 2018].

Family Law. (2018) ‘Sharia law review recommends civil marriage alongside religious ceremony’. [online] 5 February. https://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/sharia-law-review-recommends-civil-marriage-alongside-religious-ceremony#.Wns38a5l-Uk. [Accessed 7 February 2018].

Family Law Week. (no date) ‘Independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales published’. [online] http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed187811. [Accessed 7 February 2018].

HM Government. (2018) ‘The independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales’. [online] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/678478/6.4152_HO_CPFG_Report_into_Sharia_Law_in_the_UK_WEB.pdf. [Accessed 5 February 2018]. (See also /wp-content/uploads/2018/02/PDF-6.4152_HO_CPFG_Report_into_Sharia_Law_in_the_UK_WEB.pdf for report on Euro-Islam).

Kassam, R. (2018) ‘Bombshell: UK Govt Review into Sharia admits systemic discrimination against women, unknown number of ‘councils’, forced marriage victim made to appear with abusers’. [online] 5 February. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2018/02/05/bombshell-review-sharia-systemic-discrimination-women-unknown-number/. [Accessed 7 February 2018].

Rahman, S. (2018) ‘The Government should be wary of its review on sharia ‘law’’. [online] 7 February. https://www.secularism.org.uk/opinion/2018/02/the-government-should-be-wary-of-its-review-on-sharia-law. [Accessed 7 February 2018].

Researcher. (2018) ‘Channel 4’s documentary, The Truth about Muslim Marriage, receives mixed reactions’. [online] 16 January. http://www.euro-islam.info/2018/01/16/channel-4s-documentary-truth-muslim-marriage-receives-mixed-reactions/. [Accessed 5 February 2018].

Sherwood, H. (2018) ‘Register Islamic marriages under civil law, sharia review says’. [online] 1 February. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/feb/01/sharia-councils-review-islamic-marriages-uk-law. [Accessed 5 February 2018].

Thomas-Johnson, A. (2018) ‘Register civil marriage at same time as Muslim marriage, review says’. [online] 1 February. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/register-muslim-marriage-uk-civil-marriage-review-says-89641272. [Accessed 5 February 2018].