By Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Today I received another telephone call from a young Muslim woman, Nasrin, who pleaded with me to help her obtain an Islamic divorce. After fleeing a forced marriage characterised by rape and physical violence, Nasrin applied for an Islamic divorce from a Sharia council; that was almost 10 years ago now. Despite countless emails, letters and telephone calls to the Sharia council as well as joint mediation and reconciliation meetings, the Sharia council refuse to provide Nasrin with an Islamic divorce. Why? Because of Nasrin’s sex. An Imam at the Sharia council told Nasrin that her gender prevents her from unilaterally divorcing her husband, instead the Imam told her to return to her husband, perform her wifely duties and maintain the abusive marriage that she was forced into.
Having represented Muslim women pro bono at Sharia law bodies across the UK to obtain Islamic divorces, I am all too aware of the gender discriminatory experience many Muslim women suffer at some Sharia councils and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals (‘Sharia law bodies’). Unfortunately their experiences have not been highlighted by the media. Instead some Sharia law bodies have been misrepresented by the media as being transparent, voluntary and operating in accordance with human rights and equality legislation. This is not the case.
Many Sharia law bodies rule on a range of disputes from domestic violence to child residence all of which should be dealt with by UK courts of law. Having observed Sharia law bodies ruling on legal disputes it is all too apparent that they operate within a misogynist and patriarchal framework which is incompatible with UK legislation. For instance, the cost of an Islamic divorce is £400 for a woman compared to £200 for a man at the Islamic Sharia Council in East London; this is an example of blatant gender discrimination which is incompatible with the Equality Act 2010.
With over 85 Sharia law bodies operating in the UK, the majority of which charge vulnerable and impoverished Muslim women astronomical fees, Sharia law bodies have become successful and lucrative businesses. For instance the Islamic Sharia Council rules on over 500 Islamic divorces per annum at a cost of £400 for every woman applicant, equating to an annual turnover of £200,000 for Islamic divorces only. If we consider the additional legal disputes they rule upon it is likely some Sharia law bodies have an annual turnover of over £500,000. The majority of women I represent can barely afford a £15 weekly shop let alone £400 for an Islamic divorce. These destitute women have been forced to pawn their jewellery and take out loans from dangerous loan sharks in order to pay for Islamic divorces that are not even guaranteed and ultimately to fund a service that is pricing women out of the Sharia law market.
Diana Nammi, founder of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation explained that “Sharia law bodies are money-spinning businesses because they afford men more rights than women unlike UK law which is underpinned by a fundamental principle of ‘equality for all’. In most cases women do not receive any practical advice or assistance to help them exit abusive marriages, and instead face further discrimination perpetrated by Sharia ‘judges’”.
According to Anne-Marie Hutchinson OBE, partner of Dawson Cornwell a leading family law solicitors firm, “women are forced to apply for Islamic divorces from Sharia law bodies to end their marriages unlike men who are in a position of power as they only have to pronounce talaq (divorce) three times to end their marriages”. However, this is not a quick process, it is time consuming and emotionally draining for many women including Nasrin who applied for an Islamic divorce almost 10 years ago.
By protracting the time it takes for women to obtain Islamic divorces, Sharia law bodies are punishing women for their failure to maintain miserable marriages, and in Nasrin’s case an abusive forced marriage which was flawed from its incept. Rather than freeing Muslim women from the shackles of unhappy marriages they are kept in limbo and are expected to mourn their destructive marriages and to reflect on their failures as wives and mothers. Worryingly some Sharia law bodies are growing cynical business enterprises, which use their position of power to maintain unequal gender relations while profiteering on the misery of Muslim women.
Anne-Marie Waters, Spokesperson for One Law for All commented – “the very process employed by Sharia law bodies is gender discriminatory, flawed and incompatible with UK legislation”. For instance, unlike male divorce applicants, women are requested to bring along two Muslim, male witnesses to corroborate their testimony. I have yet to represent a Muslim woman who is able to comply with this gender discriminatory requirement that is contrary to the Equality Act 2010. Not only are such requirements near impossible to adhere to, but they also reflect Sharia law bodies’ ideology that women are second class citizens. A stark comparison can be drawn between the way in which women are perceived as lacking capacity to give evidence before Sharia law bodies and their inability to give evidence in court to substantiate their own cases in Dickensian times. Women were treated as criminals not citizens in Dickensian times; their belonging to society was rejected as they were portrayed as mad and bad because of their gender. Sharia law bodies are a 21st century example of the patriarchal Dickensian period that eventually prompted the early Suffragettes to engage in feminist activism to bring about gendered change.
Where are the Suffragettes now that we need them? Fortunately we have Baroness Cox’s Bill, which aims to prevent Sharia law bodies from ruling on family and criminal matters. With collective action from politicians, lawyers, human rights and women’s rights organisations it is hoped that Muslim women will be better informed of their right to seek legal remedies under UK law instead of submitting to Sharia law bodies that promote and subsist in a patriarchal framework that runs parallel to UK law.