Listening to Muslim women on sharia divorce could change it for the better

Published on Guardian website (Comment is free) here on 1st November 2016.

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Muslim women continue to be the focus of public debate and are constantly being spoken about and for, usually relating to their dress or integration. This time it is on their treatment by sharia councils. Not one, but two inquiries have been launched to investigate this issue. Although I welcome them and have already given evidence to the independent government review and will be speaking to the home affairs select committee today, I wonder if anyone is actually listening to what Muslim women have to say about the subject.

Everyone wants to listen to Muslim women when highlighting their terrible experiences of using sharia divorce services, such as domestic violence victims being pressured to mediate with the abusive husband. However, when it comes to the solutions, whether it is politicians, sharia councils or secular activists, everyone seems to think they know what is best for Muslim women.

However it is essential that Muslim women are at the forefront of informing the solutions that work for them. Their voices can already be heard in the most comprehensive report on Muslim marriage and divorce in Britain, which we at the Muslim Women’s Network UK published earlier this year. The report provides information on the challenges Muslim women face and what steps they can take to protect their rights, including recommendations on how sharia councils can raise their standards and what the government can do to strengthen civil law.

Muslim women also want to inform the debate when it comes to solutions. We are so fed up of being used as a political football that, in an unprecedented move, more than 100 Muslim women from across the religious spectrum from 34 towns and cities, and from different professions ranging from lawyers, academics, health professionals, community activists to students and homemakers, have signed an open letter. Two-thirds of the signatories know someone, be it a family member, friend or client, who has used a sharia divorce service; 25% have used one themselves and others want the option, should they ever need it. Despite the sometimes traumatic experience of being questioned by male scholars about their domestic abuse, most Muslim women do not want these sharia services to be abolished. I know this is not what many people want to hear because it does not suit their political agendas. In fact, Muslim women are alarmed that some feminists are pushing their own anti-faith or anti-Islam agendas through the guise of women’s rights. They view Islam in a reductionist manner, regarding all faith practices as discriminatory and conflating misogyny and patriarchy with religious fundamentalism and extremism.

Human rights do not only have to be discussed in secular terms, they can also be addressed within the framework of religion. Muslim feminists here and abroad have long been promoting enlightened interpretations of Islam that are compatible with democracy, human rights, freedom and pluralism. So those who advocate the immediate shutting down of sharia councils are no friends, because this would result in Muslim women being trapped in abusive marriages and drive sharia divorce services underground, leading to even less transparency, higher fees and more discrimination.

This does not mean Muslim women support sharia councils that claim that discrimination does not take place by pointing to the positive experiences of women while disregarding those who are subjected to unfair practices. They have had long enough to self-regulate and raise standards but have not done so. We continue to receive complaints about their services on the Muslim Women’s Network helpline. So what do Muslim women want? They want the government and religious authorities (whether they are mosques, sharia councils or individual scholars) to take measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and divorce. For religious authorities this means practising the many provisions in Islam that allow women to obtain a religious divorce quickly, without duress and discrimination. Remedial action must include recognising civil divorce as an Islamic divorce and not putting Muslim women through the trauma of another process to make money or to assert authority and maintain relevance in Muslim communities.

The government also needs to step in and ensure that sharia divorce services raise their standards while strengthening civil law. Changes could include making a civil marriage compulsory prior to a religious marriage, as not all Muslim women are in legally recognised marriages. In most cases a civil divorce can then be recognised as an Islamic divorce. Making a civil marriage compulsory could also reduce and eventually eliminate polygamy. The Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act 2002 could be amended so that it includes Muslim women as it currently only applies to Jewish women. This would remedy the unbalanced bargaining power of the husband in some divorce cases where there is pressure to agree to unfair custodial and financial demands during the civil divorce in return for not contesting a religious divorce. The judge would be able to withhold finalising the civil divorce until the woman receives her religious divorce from the husband.

If these solutions are implemented, Muslim women will increasingly use the British justice system at their own pace for divorce and become less reliant on sharia councils, making most of them naturally redundant in the future anyway.

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