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
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
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.