The government commissioned an independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales in May 2016. This review was published last week.
The setup and terms of reference of the review were heavily criticised by women’s rights campaigners, who organised a boycott of the review. The review acknowledges challenges in obtaining first-hand evidence of negative experiences from sharia councils. The review panel also admit that they “did not observe first hand either the councils’ process for obtaining information from the individuals seeking their assistance or the decision-making process used by the councils.”
The review confirms that sharia law is being applied in the UK in some cases as an alternative to the proper legal process. It states that, “The primary and underlying principle of sharia councils is the application of sharia law.” This is unacceptable and risks creating a parallel legal system, undermining the fundamental principle of one law for all.
The review notes that, “there is unanimous agreement among the sharia councils themselves that discriminatory practices do occur in some instances within the councils in England and Wales.” Furthermore, “From those who gave evidence to the review panel, no one disputed that sharia councils engage in practices which are discriminatory to women.”
The review found that over 90% of the people using the sharia councils are women seeking and Islamic divorce. It also found evidence that “the percentage of Muslim couples failing to have a civil marriage is high and increasing.”
1. Register Islamic marriages
The review makes three key recommendations to the government. The first is to ensure that Muslim marriages are also civilly registered, either before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage ceremony. The celebrant should face penalties for failing to ensure that the marriage is civilly registered. This would protect women with legal rights in the event of death, divorce, or abandonment. It would also prevent polygamy.
Christian Concern has supported Baroness Cox’s bill in the House of Lords which would make it a legal requirement for religious marriages to be registered. A Channel Four documentary last year “The Truth About Muslim Marriage” featured the first major survey of Muslim women married in the UK. This survey found that 66% of these had no civil ceremony and therefore were not recognised as married in UK law. 78% said that they would like their Islamic marriage to be recognised under British law. The review fails to mention Baroness Cox’s bill or the statistics from the Channel Four documentary. It also failed to compare the situation in the UK with the situation in other countries. In some EU countries it has been illegal to carry out a religious marriage without a civil ceremony for some time. As was pointed out in the Channel Four documentary, women currently have more legal protection for their marriage in a Pakistani village than in Britain.
2. Raise awareness of women’s rights
Allied with the first recommendation is a recommendation to raise awareness of women’s rights in civil law. Awareness campaigns should seek to educate women about their rights and about the benefits of civil registration of marriages. This makes eminent sense.
3. Regulate sharia councils
The third recommendation is to regulate sharia councils through some kind of state body. The review concluded that evidence from the councils themselves showed that they would be unable to adopt a system of self-regulation.
This recommendation is controversial, and there was a dissenting opinion expressed within the review panel against it. The problem is that creating state facilitated or endorsed regulation of sharia councils would give legitimacy to these councils. It will have the effect of state-endorsement of an alternative legal system. For this reason, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, explicitly ruled out setting up state regulation of sharia councils in her response to the review. She is quite right to do so.
Sharia law incompatible with UK law
The review failed to recognise that sharia law is fundamentally incompatible with UK law because of its discriminatory nature. The European Court of Human Rights has previously ruled that “sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy, as set forth in the Convention.”
In the UK some sharia councils refuse to accept the legitimacy of a civil divorce, though they would be obliged to do so in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tunisia, and Morocco. The review recommends that sharia councils should accept a decree absolute but falls short of insisting that this is done.
The government should adopt the recommendation to ensure that Muslims register their marriages. This is a step that has been taken by many other countries and which many people have been calling for. The government should act now to protect women’s rights and prevent polygamy.