Women ‘suffering on a large scale’ due to unregistered religious marriages

18 November 2016

In this piece, Christian Concern’s Islamic Affairs Director Tim Dieppe discusses a House of Lords debate this week, on an amendment that would require religious marriages to be registered.

The House of Lords debated Baroness Cox’s Amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill on Wednesday 16 November. This amendment would require religious marriages to be registered, so protecting vulnerable women by granting them legal protection and preventing polygamy.

Baroness Cox introduced her Amendment and highlighted the injustice of divorce under sharia law which means that a man may divorce his wife merely by uttering the words “I divorce you” three times. She described meeting a woman who received these words in the post and this was accepted as a divorce by the Imam without any reference to her opinion. In the woman’s words, “I felt that plain piece of paper was a mockery of my human rights.” Another woman was divorced in this way, denied access to her children, and ostracised by her community, leading her to attempt suicide. Registration of religious marriages would prevent such injustices.

Baroness Buscombe spoke in support of the Amendment. She referred to the discriminatory rulings of sharia councils, and said: “We have been turning a blind eye to this discrimination for many years, even though the evidence is out there. This has been chiefly because we would be called racist or intolerant of different cultures. In fact, we have been acquiescing in the disrespect, outright abuse and denial of equal access to our rule of law and it is time to put that right.”

In reference to the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into sharia courts she asked: “Where has this Committee been on this issue for the last 40-plus years?” She described it as “extraordinary” that we have allowed more than 80 sharia councils to mete out “a system of justice that can choose to ignore our rule of law.” She contrasted the situation in the UK with Pakistan, where family law has been regulated since 1960 and is not sharia based. She asked whether the government could confirm that there are no sharia councils anywhere else in Europe.

She then went on to criticise the inquiry launched by the Home Office for seeking examples of “best practice” rather than asking whether sharia law itself is incompatible with our public law. She argued: “In essence, by accepting sharia law in principle, we are and have been accepting that one body of people living in the UK may ignore the rule of law where it believes it conflicts with its views and beliefs, particularly with regard to the treatment of women. I am not quite sure why we need this review to work that simple fact out.”

Baroness Buscombe concluded: “This important amendment is about equal rights and equal treatment under the law—our rule of law. There is absolutely no point in talking about, or spending yet more taxpayers’ money on, efforts and projects to improve integration, social cohesion or social mobility. It will not happen as long as we stand by and allow these practices that subjugate women’s rights to continue.”

Lord Alton and Baroness Deech also spoke in support of the Amendment, and no one spoke against it.

Baroness Chilsolm responded for the Government. She expressed sympathy for the issues raised, but argued that it is a complex area, and one which the Law Society and the Government’s independent sharia review are investigating. She promised to investigate how many sharia councils there are across Europe. She argued that the government supports the law preventing polygamous marriages, without appearing to recognise that this only applies to registered marriages.

Baroness Cox responded by criticising the Government for their apparent lack of urgency in addressing these issues. She said: “To wait for the outcomes of the reviews leaves these women in a terrible situation. The gap, the chasm, between the de facto realities and the de jure realities is one into which these women are falling and suffering in ways that should not be allowed in our country today. These issues are urgent: women are suffering on a large scale.”

One such account of suffering by a woman seeking a sharia divorce was published in the press over the weekend. This woman suffered an abusive and violent arranged marriage, and was repeatedly told to be silent in the sharia court which also did not accept any information from civil proceedings.

I wrote about the benefits of registering religious marriages earlier this month, with evidence of the numbers of unregistered and polygamous marriages involved. It is not too complex to implement. In fact, registration of marriages is compulsory in many Islamic countries, such as Pakistan, which therefore grant Muslim women more protection than they have here in the UK. Baroness Cox has done the country a service in obtaining a debate on this issue. I hope that, before long, the Government will see the benefits of protecting women’s rights in this way.

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