Islamic courts would be forced to acknowledge the primacy of English law under a bill being introduced in the House of Lords.
The bill, proposed by Lady Cox and backed by women’s rights groups and the National Secular Society, was drawn up because of “deep concerns” that Muslim women are suffering discrimination within closed sharia law councils.
The Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill will introduce an offence carrying a five-year jail sentence for anyone falsely claiming or implying that sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law. The bill, which will apply to all arbitration tribunals if passed, aims to tackle discrimination, which its supporters say is inherent in the courts, by banning the sharia practice of giving woman’s testimony only half the weight of men’s.
Cox said: “Equality under the law is a core value of British justice. My bill seeks to preserve that standard”
In a similar way to Jewish Beth Din courts, sharia tribunals can make verdicts in cases involving financial and property issues which, under the 1996 Arbitration Act, are enforceable by county courts or the high court.
They do not have a supremacist agenda, however, or designs on replacing the larger governing system through incremental expansion. Sharia courts, on the other hand, got a foot in the door, and are already trying to force a broader role for themselves:
The tribunals should only be deciding civil disputes but two years ago the think-tank Civitas claimed sharia courts, some 85 of which operate in Birmingham, London, Bradford and Manchester, had crossed the proper limits of their jurisdiction and were regularly giving illegal advice on marriage and divorce.
Cox said they are increasingly ruling on family and criminal cases, including child custody and domestic violence. Jurisdiction “creep” had caused considerable suffering among women compelled to return to abusive husbands, or to give up children and property.
Diana Nammi, of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, said: “Women and children are very vulnerable members of the community and under sharia law they become invisible. Women and children are the most vulnerable in minority communities where religion tradition and culture has become the identity taking precedence over the human rights and women’s rights that are protected under civil, UK law.”
The bill requires public bodies to inform women they have fewer legal rights if their marriage is unrecognised in English law. Cox said she had found “considerable evidence” of women, some of whom are brought to Britain speaking little English and kept ignorant of their legal rights, suffering domestic violence or unequal access to divorce, due to discriminatory decisions made. “We cannot continue to condone this situation. Many women say: ‘We came to this country to escape these practices only to find the situation is worse here.’ “
Claims of “voluntary” participation or even preference by Muslim women must also be taken with a grain of salt given how tightly many are controlled by their families.
Cox said she would be asking the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who caused a row last year when he said a recognised role for sharia law seemed unavoidable, to back her bill. She said: “By appearing to condone this inherent discrimination system which is causing real suffering to women, he has failed to recognise that suffering. He is appearing to forward the acceptability and validity of Sharia law in this country.”…