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Baroness Cox to draft anti-sharia Bill

10 April 2015

iSTOCK

A BILL to protect Muslim women who are suffering from "religiously sanctioned gender discrimination" in sharia courts is to be laid before the next Parliament.

It will be introduced as a Private Member's Bill by Baroness Cox, who believes that the suffering of such women "would make the suffragettes turn in their graves".

To accompany the Bill, she has written a report - A Parallel World: Confronting the abuse of many Muslim women in Britain today - which contains testimonies from women who have suffered at sharia courts.

Several of them describe how they sought a divorce after experiencing domestic violence. They speak of the way in which civil divorces, and the evidence that secured them, were ignored, and of being urged to seek reconciliation with their husbands, or grant violent husbands access to their children.

Shahien Taj, of the charity Henna Foundation, explains in the report that, owing "to community pressure . . . a large majority of Muslim women will apply for an Islamic divorce once given their decree absolute".

Currently, the Arbitration Act 1996 allows parties to agree how civil disputes should be resolved, including choosing arbitration according to sharia principles. Decisions reached by arbitration tribunals, including sharia ones, can be enforced in UK courts.

But the report warns of a fear that even those tribunals that are operating legitimately under the Act are "embedding discrimination against women". It gives the example of a Muslim arbitration tribunal in Nuneaton, which ruled that the brothers in an inheritance dispute were entitled to twice the inheritance that their sisters were entitled to.

The report also warns that some arbitration tribunals are operating outside the legal framework: for example, they are deciding cases relating to criminal law, including those involving domestic violence.

In addition to concerns about arbitration tribunals, it draws attention to the existence of "sharia courts" or "councils", which may be "mixing up" arbitration and mediation. Refusing to settle a dispute in such a court can have dire consequences, it suggests, and going to the police or other external organisations is "often considered culturally unacceptable and shameful".

The Bill will make it clear that sex-discrimination law applies to arbitration-tribunal proceedings, and will strengthen court powers to set aside rulings when discrimination or coercion is deemed to have taken place. It will place a duty on public bodies to ensure that women who have had an Islamic marriage are aware of their legal rights, and to create a new offence that criminalises anyone who purports to adjudicate on matters that ought to be decided by criminal or family courts.

The Bill is supported by several women's organisations, including Inspire, and Karma Nirvana.

The previous Government refused to support the Bill, arguing that it was unnecessary. Baroness Cox hopes to reintroduce it in the next session.

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