An interesting investigation by the BBC programme Victoria Derbyshire was aired recently, amidst claims of discrimination by Islamic women.
Although all divorces in England and Wales must be processed through the English legal system, many Islamic individuals refuse to acknowledge this procedure and go on to request a divorce in what they consider to be in the eyes of God, which can only be granted by a Sharia council, despite these religious councils having no legal power within this country.
Many women say that Sharia councils are not infallible, however. One woman shown in the programme stated that her husband had been abusive throughout their marriage and requested a divorce. In the meantime, her husband had told the council that he loved his wife and she then initially asked if she could forget all the things he had allegedly done to her, before finally having her request granted.
Other women were not as fortunate, however. Another woman who attended one of the thirty-something Sharia councils across the UK told how her husband was a polygamist and raped her regularly. In response, she was advised to undertake mediation and visited a religious advisor alone in his home. The advisor responded that polygamy was in fact permitted in the Islamic religion and suggested that she “be patient”.
Sharia councils are not regulated and cases have been known whereby decisions made by religious leaders have flown in the face of the English justice system. One such case involved a woman who was advised to undertake mediation with her husband, despite her having been granted an injunction against him. Prior to her appointment as prime minister, Theresa May announced that she would be leading a review into Sharia in England and Wales, to identify whether it can work alongside and support English divorce law; and to pinpoint areas where discrimination against women is commonplace.
Shaista Gohir, chairperson of the charity Muslim Women’s Network UK is however, doubtful as to whether the process and decisions made within Sharia councils could ever be formalised due to difficulties surrounding investigations and enforcement.