The head of the Muslim Women’s Network has claimed women are being used as a political football in the debate about sharia courts.
Shaista Gohir penned an open letter ahead of a meeting of the home affairs select committee inquiry into sharia courts on Tuesday (1).
In it, she argues while some anti-faith activists conflate “misogyny and patriarchy with extremism”, religious conservatives falsely claim that discrimination does not take place in the sharia court system.
The letter follows the launch of an inquiry earlier this year into the operation of sharia courts in the UK to ensure their principles are compatible with British law.
Another investigation was carried out by the Home Office in May.
In the letter, signed by 100 Muslim women from a range of professions, Gohir welcomed both inquiries, but warned that “closing down sharia councils would drive divorce services underground, leading to even less transparency and more discrimination”.
“There are many provisions in Islam that allow women to obtain a religious divorce quickly, without duress and discrimination, that sharia councils should be practising,” wrote Gohir, who gave evidence to the committee on Tuesday.
“It seems that various parties, to further their own agendas, are using Muslim women as a political football. It is therefore essential that both investigations prioritise the voices of Muslim women and ensure that the diversity of Muslim women’s voices is considered first and foremost.”
She criticised the inquiry for not listening to enough evidence from Muslim women or women who had experience of using the sharia court system. The committee inquiry will look at the extent to which sharia courts discriminate against women among other topics.
In written evidence submitted to the inquiry, the Southall Black Sisters women’s rights group accused the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (Mat), a sharia court based in Nuneaton, of “sabotaging criminal proceedings” against men accused of domestic violence.
The evidence reads: “Sharia councils and the Mat hold themselves out to be ‘courts of law’ but they are in fact highly arbitrary decision-making forums that use dominant, patriarchal and authoritarian interpretations of Muslim codes which are passed off as ‘sharia’ laws.”
The Mat said it condemned actions taken by anyone to “restrict or impede the pathway to justice sought by any victim of domestic violence”.
In her letter, Gohir said sharia courts in the UK were not applying Islamic rulings consistently and urged the government to provide alternative civil solutions so that Muslim women were not solely dependent on religious institutions for divorce.
“This could include making a civil marriage compulsory prior to a religious marriage, because in most cases a civil divorce can be recognised as an Islamic divorce,” she wrote.