As a PhD Candidate researching Sharia councils in the United Kingdom, I was in the fortunate position to gain access to several hearings at these institutions, which are normally barred to the public. It was a great experience and I am thankful to my hosts for having me as a visitor.
In part one of my blog series on Sharia councils, I highlighted my visit at the most fundamentalist Sharia council; the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, London. Part two of this blog series focuses on the Sharia council hosted by the Birmingham Central Mosque. This one has the reputation of being one of the most liberal councils in the United Kingdom. There I was able to see several divorce requests by women; a Sharia council’s ‘core business’.
“In Islam, marriage is about love and affection”
“This is not a valid marriage under the Quran, it is a sham. I have no interest in saving this. I just don’t understand this marriage. It makes no sense.” Speaking is Dr. Mohammad Naseen (picture middle), a medical practitioner who leads the three-person panel in charge of ruling on cases. The panel is discussing whether to grant a woman a religious divorce.
Earlier, a woman told the panel of qadi’s that she needed to get the divorce in order to gain peace of mind. The husband harasses her and her children. He leaves the house for long periods of time without notice, and constantly texts or calls her in an accusatory tone. When he does come home, the children are so scared that the oldest ones flee the house. There are rumours that he is married to someone else. She does not care whether that is true or not, she just wants a divorce.
Amra Bone (picture left), currently the only female qadi in the United Kingdom, agrees with dr. Naseen. “The husband hasn’t taken the Islamic conception of marriage where man and wife are garments of each other. They have to take care of each other”. They call the woman back in. Mohammed Naseen tells her the marriage will be dissolved, as this is not the Qur’anic definition of marriage. The council will give her an official document and after three menstrual cycles she will be free. “He has the right to see his children, of course”.
Other women come in, one after another. One woman got religiously married so that her Pakistani husband could get a visa to come and live in the United Kingdom. When the visa application failed, he used her for money. Now she is 4,000 pounds in debt and she has not seen him since the marriage. She is granted a divorce as well.
A 27-year-old woman comes in and tells the panel she has been married for five years, the last four years of which have consisted of physical and emotional abuse. One night, the abuse was so bad an ambulance had to come for her and the police arrested him. When he returned home, she went to a refuge where she stayed for seven months. When he is drunk he also beats their son. Now she wants a divorce. The council invited him to come to give him the opportunity to speak. He didn’t want to come, but he did say there has never been violence and that he wants to reconcile the marriage. “If he would beg you to come back, would you?”, Amra Bone asks the woman. The wife is not interested. “This is a very straightforward case”, the female qadi continues, “In Islam, marriage is about love and affection, and having a responsibility towards each other”. Yet, under Islam, the husband retains the right to see his children. The marriage is dissolved: she receives a document and is told that she has to wait three menstrual cycles and then she is free to find another husband.
The Birmingham Central Mosque stance, I am told, is that marriage requires mutual love, trust and consent: “In Islam you live in happiness. Religion is for ease, not for hardship”. Divorce procedures here take about two to three months, which is a relatively fast procedure. They do not wait for the husband to respond.
I ask the panel what they think of the Leyton approach (see previous blog) where the qadi’s keep women from getting a divorce by stretching the procedures and thus leaving them in a situation of marital captivity. The white-robed qadi Muhammad Talha Bukhari (picture right) tells me that such a split-status position would mean doubt, and that “marriage should be based on clear facts. You cannot be husband and non-husband at the same time.” They believe in fast procedures, as “the Qur’an has made talaq and khul easy on purpose. Sharia has made very easy grounds for marriage and divorce.”
I tell them about the Leyton case where the qadi told a couple that kaffirs cannot rule on Islamic matters and that the woman’s civil divorce means nothing under Islam. They seem to be appalled. “We totally disagree. We cannot have two laws. This is totally wrong. We live as British citizens and accept the law of the land. Religious law can work with the civil courts on the basis that the law of the land is supreme.” At the Birmingham Sharia Council a civil divorce is deemed sufficient grounds for a religious divorce, and they often do not even have to see these women before granting them a religious divorce. Also, police statements on abuse or a stay in a refuge counts as hard evidence, as opposed to the council in Leyton where any information not confirmed by the husband remains an allegation.
Now I know why this council is considered to be liberal: they actually grant divorces; on the same day a woman comes in, she gets a positive result. I ask Amra Bone why don’t all women go to the Birmingham Central Mosque instead of the fundamentalist, and most visited one, in Leyton, London? She tells me that, indeed, word is out and their council currently has a waiting list.