Sharia councils to speak they market Muslim ladies a method out of spiritual marriage however critics argue this parallel legal system deserve to leave vulnerable people trapped in abuse. Here is a rare look behind the scenes


‘The Islamic an essential of marriage is the a woman must feel safe’… Dr Amra Bone hears a divorce request at Birmingham main mosque. Photograph: i-Images
‘The Islamic fundamental of marriage is that a woman have to feel safe’… Dr Amra Bone hears a divorce inquiry at Birmingham main mosque. Photograph: i-Images

On a freezing, rainswept Sunday in a conference room in Birmingham main mosque, a young woman in a black padded coat is crying quietly. Her surname is Zaynab and as she elevator up her glasses to rub at she eyes, one of the three religious scholars sitting opposite she starts to speak.

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“The panel is in agreement, this marriage is to be dissolved today, Zaynab,” says Dr Amra Bone, among the only female sharia council judges in the country. “It doesn’t have actually the ingredient of one Islamic marriage; over there is no love, trust, compassion or respect. You have actually an iddah duration of three menstrual cycles and you room then cost-free to marry again.”

As Zaynab collects her paperwork, Bone’s colleague, Shaykh Talha Bukhari, one elderly man with a white beard, turns to me. “Marriage is not for shedding tears,” he claims quietly, “but here they space rolling down.”

I am at the mosque’s sharia council, i beg your pardon in the past year has faced 400 requests for divorce. Sharia councils – frequently mislabelled together sharia courts – have a sinister call in the UK. Choose halal meat and the niqab, they space a dog whistle because that those seek to indicate that there is a creeping Islamification the the UK. In part, this is since sharia – Islamic – law is synonymous in numerous people’s minds with terrifying punishments such together stoning. The fact of the councils is much less bloodthirsty but there are still factors to worry.

Almost all the sharia councils, which an initial appeared in the UK in the 1980s, were founded to facilitate Islamic divorces because that Muslim women who require a religious scholar to finish their marital relationship where their husbands nothing consent (they may additionally offer spiritual advice top top inheritance, wills or issue religious rulings). They space not the only spiritual councils – there are additionally the Jewish Orthodox Beth Din, and also Catholic tribunals. The sharia councils are frequently accused of operating a “parallel legitimate system” in the UK, but their rulings have actually no legit standing here or abroad, and they have actually no enforcement powers. As unofficial bodies, they additionally have no jurisdiction over custody or jae won issues. What they rely on is the load that religious rulings carry in the Muslim community.

Surprisingly small is known about the councils – even down to how plenty of there space in the UK (estimates range from 30 come 80). Some, favor Birmingham’s, are large and long established; others room informal, backroom affairs. Individual imams also carry the end the exact same functions, complicating your definition. Samia Bano, a senior lecturer in regulation at Soas university of London who has written a publication on sharia councils, jokes the they room so not blocked “I can open one tomorrow”. Since cuts to legal assist made civil divorces an ext expensive, more couples than ever are turning to them. Yet their doubters say they pose a severe threat to Muslim ladies in the UK.

Prompted by fears that they to be discriminatory, Theresa May launched a government inquiry in may last year. Simply a month later, the home Affairs Committee announced that is own. In December, the Casey evaluation by Dame Louise Casey right into integration included insurance claims that sharia councils “supported the values of extremists, condoned wife-beating, ignored marital rape and allowed forced marriages”. And also in January, a bill aimed in ~ sharia councils put forward through the independent peer Baroness Cox (to carry equality regulation to be affected by each other on arbitration and mediation services) had its 2nd reading in the house of Lords, 6 years after she an initial began lobbying for one.


Birmingham central mosque. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The GuardianWomen’s groups, meanwhile, have been elevating the alert for some years. Southall black Sisters, i beg your pardon addresses the demands of BAME women, phone call the councils patriarchal and regressive and wants lock shut down. Women space being pressured to go back to abusive husbands, the says, and they interfere with child custody and also financial matters. Muslim women’s teams accuse Sharia councils of ignoring women’s legal rights under Islamic, as well as civil, law and cite hair-raising situations of ladies being told come endure marital rape and also polygamy. The Muslim Women’s Network points to an circumstances where a mrs was being continuously raped by her husband, who had additionally married again, but was said to be “patient” by a mediator native a sharia council. They say the councils need to be reformed, until an alternative means of search a religious divorce have the right to be found.

Unsurprisingly, provided their negative press, sharia councils room wary of media interest. Birmingham is i was sure enough around its reputation to it is in an exception.

Saba butt is the council’s administrator. In the months before today’s panel meeting, she has built up testimony and paperwork native the spouses affiliated in each case, starting with the wives. The women room asked if they want to go v a reconciliation process, or straight to the panel for a decision (the councils market couples mediation). Islamic marriages are contracts (nikahs), signed by both parties and two witnesses. Each need to contain an lot of money (mahr) that is granted come the wife. When both men and also women can attain a divorce in Islam, the process is easier for males (unless the mrs has contained an equal appropriate to divorce in the contract, and couple of do).

Subject to assorted conditions and also restrictions, husbands can finish the marriage simply by advertising they are divorcing their mam – known as a talaq. A mam can also initiate a divorce (known together a khula), and if the husband agrees, the marriage can be ended. If that contests it, a third party can dissolve the contract – i beg your pardon is wherein sharia councils action in. Without the board of directors rulings, the dashboard tell me, countless women feel they room still married in the vision of God – also if castle have had a polite divorce.

During the afternoon, i watch women document in, one through one, together seven situations are heard. Some space alone, others have relatives through them; some are mothers. There is a teaching assistant and an eye specialist among them, and most hearings space in English (two women prefer to speak in Urdu). All however one have their marital relationships dissolved.

Zaynab is a young mother. She explains that her marriage dropped apart in 2014, and also the last time she witnessed her husband was as soon as he tried to drunkenly break right into her home. That has due to the fact that moved away.

The 3 scholars inquiry her gently. Is her marital relationship registered under English law? No, her husband was worried it would affect his benefits. Did he assistance her and their youngsters financially? Never. Did he have problems with addiction and also gambling? Yes. Castle shake their heads.


A Muslim wedding. Photograph: Photofusion/REX/ShutterstockBone states that the panel all job-related as volunteers and also feel the is their Islamic duty to aid the ar resolve conflicts. Bukhari recites a story of just how the prophet Muhammad finished a woman’s marriage because “she go not like being with her husband”.

“A marriage is no for experiencing or because that sacrifice,” he says.

Yet due to the fact that each board of directors operates alone, v rulings based on its panel’s personal knowledge and interpretation of religious laws, your approach and also decisions have the right to vary wildly. Bano says some the the 25 women she interviewed for her book found sharia councils patriarchal and also problematic. Regularly women acquired round this through “forum shopping” because that a council the suited them. Yet once things go wrong, over there is no accountability.

Amara, a 45-year-old lawyer indigenous London, go to check out a sharia the supervisory board in her 20s. Throughout her three-year marriage, she claims her husband fight her, make the efforts to press her under the stairs when she was pregnant, and also kept her sinner for three days. She took the end an injunction against him, started civil divorce proceedings, and finally approached a sharia council.

Her voice shakes together she remembers how the three panel judges – all elderly males – reacted. “They asked points like: what did you perform to provoke him?’” she husband had been limited by the court to supervised call with your children because of his violence, yet the judges insisted top top talking around access. “All lock cared around was his connection with the youngsters – no their safety, or my safety.”

Amara to reduce the case, yet later approached the Muslim university in Ealing. This, she says, “was a totally different experience”. Her instance was dealt with in writing, professionally, and also resolved within a couple of months.

One pressing trouble is the increasing number of Muslim couples who space at the mercy of sharia councils because they have actually had spiritual ceremonies to mark their marriage but are not legally married under UK law. Over there is no central registry that Islamic marriages (marriages execute not have to take location in a mosque, and you do not need an imam), so that is impossible to know how numerous couples have had only spiritual services – Aina Khan, a lawyer and campaigner, has estimated that there can be 100,000 couples in britain (under the existing Marriage Act, only Anglicans, Quakers and Jews are obliged to register their marriage).

“In the past 5 years there has been a steep boost . It used to it is in about half , now it has actually crept up to 80%,” says Khan. Part couples intend to have a civil organization at a later date, others carry out not realise one Islamic marital relationship undertaken in the UK is no legally recognised; part feel it is only a spiritual marriage that is important to them.

Khan claims she has additionally seen rise in males wanting to avoid shedding money or property in a divorce. “Instead that a prenuptial agreement, males are refusing a legal marriage. Women are worried around losing your rishta for this reason they say: ‘OK’.” however this method these Muslim women perform not have legal protection, also if they have given up occupational to look at after children. Women danger being turned the end of their houses with nothing if their marriages malfunction – the Casey Review defines that this deserve to be particularly worrying through the “lower levels of female employment, reduced levels of English language and, anecdotally at least, a absence of awareness of other civil rights” in Muslim communities.


“Religion inherently discriminates against women” … Pragna Patel, chair that Southall black Sisters. Photograph: Southall black SistersMuslim ladies who have civil marital relationships will need a civil divorce too. However those with no civil marriage need to turn to sharia councils and also risk gift left in limbo for years. Cannes says among her clients had started a new relationship and was pregnant with a child with still no sign of she Islamic divorce native the sharia the supervisory board she used to.

Khan fear councils are ending up being increasingly misogynistic and also inefficient. “Sadly castle have come to be a victim the their very own success – they space overworked. The Salafi influence on religious beliefs has brought in a real misogyny. They have actually become an ext hardline and anti-female.”

This deserve to be checked out in the most frightening complaint versus sharia councils – that with divorce permissible yet discouraged by Islam, women room pressured right into mediation v violent partners – or even reconciliation. Savin Bapir-Tarvey, a psychologist v the Iranian and also Kurdish Women’s civil liberties Organisation (IKWRO), sees about 15 client a week, numerous of whom are exceptionally vulnerable. She says cultural concepts such as honour are offered to manipulate women. “They have actually experienced major abuse and also their children have witnessed it,” she says, however they are told the “to leave would carry shame on the family”.

Even marital rape deserve to be ignored. “Women who have actually been through FGM might not make that clear , yet they could say they don’t desire to have sex. One mrs was told that was her duty – and she have to pray while she husband has actually sex v her – usually while he raped her.”

Bone is clear on the subject of domestic violence: “The Islamic fundamental of marital relationship is the a woman should feel safe.” If there was violence, “we would go right ahead and dissolve it”. She additionally disputes one more criticism – that a woman’s testimony in ~ a sharia board of directors is given half the load of a man’s, insisting that this is no true in her council and also is a misinterpretation that sharia regulation in general.

Over at the famous Islamic cultural Centre and London central mosque in Regent’s Park, manager Ahmad al-Dubayan is make the efforts to revolutionary councils native within. It has collection up a plank of sharia councils – 18 so much – with a password of conduct. Dubayan speak me he would like to see less expensive, fairer charges for Islamic divorces (some ladies pay £400, men considerably less) and an finish to delays. He says numerous Muslims execute not understand their marital relationship rights under Islamic law and also that castle are putting together a hand-operated to rectify this. There are certainly an excellent experiences amid the fear stories. Khatija from the east Midlands speak me that as soon as she was pregnant v her second child in 2003, she began civil divorce proceedings because that coercive control, yet her husband protected it. “At the point, coercive regulate was no a separate offence . The judge was appalling. The told me i didn’t seem come have enough reason for a divorce.” Khatija to be told to wait till the pair had been be separated for 5 years – i m sorry took till 2009.

It was the sharia the supervisory board in Dewsbury, she says, that took the abuse seriously, arranging one Islamic divorce in a issue of months. “The imam I dealt with was very, very kind. I described how ns wasn’t permitted out the the house, also when ns was with my parents in the UK – he would still control me. Before I went out, ns would need to ring to check with him.”

Southall black Sisters, however, is for sure in that opposition. Religion and also family regulation are too dangerous a mix to enable sharia councils to proceed to operate. “Religion naturally discriminates against women,” stresses director Pragna Patel. “You cannot accessibility justice if the human being who are violating your rights are dispensing it.”

Along with other secular women’s groups, it has boycotted the federal government inquiry, stating that the is top by a theologian fairly than a judge, and also has Islamic scholar in ar of person rights experts. Sharia council supporters point out the women pick to have actually Islamic divorces of your own totally free will however Patel says this ignores the truth that they perform so to prevent being “treated together outcasts” through conservative communities, who see divorce together shameful.

Bano agrees that state law, yet imperfect, “is the only mechanism that Muslim and also vulnerable women have actually for protection” and “in family members law matters or in problems of vulnerability and also marginalisation we must never have a delegation right into the community”.

IKWRO is considering another means to take on sharia councils. Castle are looking for a test instance to prove the “marital captivity” – refusing to offer a mrs a religious divorce – is a kind of required marriage. If men were fear of being prosecuted under this legislation, the team says, there would be no require for sharia councils.

Yet Muslim women’s teams argue that women who feel they require a spiritual divorce have to not be left there is no an way to obtain one, while cannes says transforming the marital relationship Act to ensure all marital relationships are registered would help protect women. A clause in the Islamic marital relationship contract can then make civil divorces precious Islamically.

Alongside this, she suggests ensuring over there are much more female sharia judges, and making councils more accountable v a central governing human body to ensure all decisions comply v British law. “As a community we must be a beacon on exactly how to have actually a happy family members life, and how to finish a marital relationship in dignity if that goes wrong,” she says.

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For the women at Birmingham sharia council, in ~ least, the work has brought some relief. It’s dark external when the last applicant is called her marital relationship is dissolved, and also she will shortly be cost-free to marry again. “That’s the last point on mine mind,” she says quickly.