Leiden Law Blog

Shari’a Councils in the UK: human rights and/or Shari’a law?

Shari’a Councils in the UK: human rights and/or Shari’a law?

Gender Discrimination and Muslim religious tribunals in the United Kingdom

On 22 April 2013 the BBC Panorama programme made a covert documentary on Muslim Shari’a Councils operating in the UK. This attracted a lot of controversy about inequality issues concerning Muslim women who resorted to these Councils to seek advice on religious divorce and violence. Some victims of domestic violence were asked to return to their husbands, which is contrary to UK law as it directly places women at risk of future harm. This also attracted political scrutiny by Baroness Cox, a politician who introduced the Arbitration and Mediation (Equality) Services Bill  (link: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2014-2015/0021/15021.pdf). The Bill addresses gender discrimination within religious tribunals and parallel legal systems.

Marital Captivity and the Law

Some Muslims do not consider a secular divorce sufficient when the religious marriage is not formally dissolved. When a woman is still considered married under religious law but no longer under civil law (if there ever was a civil marriage), this can be referred to as marital captivity. This ‘split status’ position leaves women vulnerable to the whims of ‘recalcitrant husbands, who are well aware of the adverse effect the situation has on their wives, as they fall between the cracks of the civil and religious jurisdictions’, as stated by professor of law Ayelet Shachar.

Alternatives to Shari’a Councils in the Netherlands

The Netherlands has introduced two alternatives for women who have been put in a situation of marital captivity by their husbands. One is the criminalisation of marital captivity. According to Shirin Musa, founder of Femmes for Freedom, after years of marital captivity a woman finally pressed charges which caused her husband to immediately cooperate with a religious divorce. A second important alternative to Shari’a Councils was established by Musa herself: after years of failed attempts to get her husband to cooperate with the divorce she took the civil route: the civil judge imposed damages upon the husband for each day of non-compliance with the court’s ruling that he had to release her from the religious marriage. He instantly did what was asked. 

Secular-Religious Debate in Europe

The secular-religious debate has been influenced by politics. For example, inequality issues for women seeking advice from Shari’a Councils and the full face veil prohibition in France, i.e. the legal implications of the ruling given by the European Court of Human (ECtHR) in the case of S.A.S v. France (Application no. 43835/11). In July 2014 a French Muslim woman filed an application against France to challenge the prohibition. . It was concluded that France did not violate the ECHR. Our workshop seeks to address whether state laws accommodate diverse/different legal systems. Can we distinguish between Shari’a councils or are they all the same?  What does this interaction between state laws and Islamic laws mean? And how may the state respond and/or what pragmatic solutions exist?

Please feel free to join our workshop at the Leiden Law School conference on Interaction between Legal Systems

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