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British Government Set to Battle Sharia Courts

A bill that challenges illegal discriminatory practices in U.K. shariah forums is gathering support in Britain's parliament. Its passage will be followed with interest in Western countries under pressure to recognize aspects of Islamic law.
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A bill that challenges illegal discriminatory practices in U.K. shariah forums is gathering support in Britain's parliament. Its passage will be followed with interest in Western countries under pressure to recognize aspects of shariah (Islamic law), particularly in the United States, where formal recognition of shariah in court rulings is stimulating debate.

Approximately 85 shariah forums, such as tribunals, councils and "courts" operate a parallel jurisdiction. Few records are kept and there is no right of appeal. Women are given the impression that discriminatory verdicts have legal validity and are not made aware of more equitable entitlements according to U.K. civil law.

Shariah courts or councils operated for years in the U.K., but in 2007 the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal was established to take advantage of a clause in the Arbitration Act of 1996 that made judgments enforceable under British law. Provided both parties agreed on the verdict, commercial and inheritance disputes could be resolved but criminal and family issues were prohibited and remained the remit of civil courts

The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Private Members Bill tabled by independent peer and Human Rights campaigner, Baroness Caroline Cox, would not interfere with religious groups who wish to live by their own rules as long as they did not set up parallel legal systems in conflict with British law. However, under the proposed legislation, anyone who falsely claimed the right to adjudicate on criminal or family matters by straying into the remit of civil courts could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

The Bill is supported by many Muslims, as well as Muslim women's organisations and secular groups, including Inspire, the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation, Henna Foundation, Karma Nirvana, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the National Secular Society and One Law for All.

Under the Bill, any consents or contracts made under duress could be invalidated. Victims of domestic violence would be protected against intimidation. The legislation would make clear that sex discrimination law applied to arbitration tribunals and any evidence of sexism was "a serious irregularity." In cases of domestic violence, a woman who was intimidated or coerced would receive more police protection.

A new duty would be created, warning women against religious marriage ceremonies without civil registration under U.K. law, as upon divorce, they would forgo any state entitlements. Islam is the only religion in the U.K. that fails to register religious marriages.

Individual women, organizations and lawyers who gave evidence prior to the debate drew attention to discrimination in shariah courts, including women's testimony granted only half the weight of men's, inequality in matters of inheritance, divorce and custody, and sanction of polygamy. Women must engage in a lengthy divorce process but men can divorce wives easily and unilaterally. If a divorce is granted, fathers are given custody of children who reach a certain age.

Permission of a male guardian is required before a woman can marry. A widow reported that in order to marry, she had been forced to seek permission from her 11-year-old son living in Jordan, as he represented her guardian under shariah. Forced marriage, under-age marriage and domestic violence are not generally considered criminal offences in shariah courts and U.K. protection orders have been disregarded.

Many women, unable to speak English and ignorant of civil laws, are easily pressured by family and community to keep quiet, and seek arbitration in religious, rather than secular, courts.

The Canadian experience is informative. Shariah courts operated under Ontario's Arbitration Act of 1991 but no action had been taken about discriminatory verdicts. As a result, domestic violence went unpunished, financial support and custody following divorce was minimal, and underage girls were forcibly married during visits to home countries.

Homa Arjomand, an Iranian immigrant and feminist, challenged shariah courts after a Muslim leader asserted that a "good Muslim" should choose religious tribunals over Canadian civil courts. Fearing that women would be coerced into accepting shariah judgments and denied protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights, Arjomand mounted a campaign against the courts, and in 2005, the premier of Ontario banned all faith-based arbitration in the province.

The issue of Muslim women's rights is one of the most pressing in the world today, and lack of support for reformers constitutes a blot on politicians, religious authorities and the worldwide feminist movement.

The Bill before the British Parliament in the House of Lords was recently debated at second reading. It will be closely examined at the Committee stage, which is not yet scheduled. A report stage and third reading in the House of Lords could take many months, and would be followed by a similar passage through the House of Commons prior to ratification. Although not worded to target shariah courts specifically, the Bill is contentious and could encounter many obstacles during its passage.

In the past, Western women were treated as second-class citizens but society has progressed to anti-discrimination legislation, and one law for all.

Muslim peers, notable for their absence in the debate at second reading, should consider supporting the Bill, in keeping with British law and international conventions.

Solid grassroots support for the Bill by the British government and throughout the West would demonstrate unapologetic commitment to gender equality and confidence in the democratic system to outlaw sexist practice.

Apathy could lead to erosion of hard-won freedoms that cannot be taken for granted, and require constant vigilance, courage and political will. Otherwise, we betray women seeking equal rights in the West, and we continue a slippery collision course of fundamental values.

A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.

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