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Sharia Law: Equality for All?

Written By Francesca Allanson (2nd year LLB)

In the last two decades the use and influence of Sharia law in the UK has grown substantially. Every year thousands of Muslims seek advice and assistance from Sharia Councils, throughout the country, in an attempt to resolve marital disputes in accordance with Islamic principles. Sharia councils have operated parallel to the domestic legal system since the early 1980s.   However, the councils have no legal powers and their decisions are not binding in domestic law. Instead, the verdicts serve to uphold Islamic ideals and the integrity of Muslim communities. Nevertheless, many British Muslims choose to voluntarily accept the rulings of these Islamic scholars who act in a quasi-judicial role. However, despite the growing demand for Sharia law in the UK, a number of concerns about its practice have been raised. It has been suggested that the practice allows for the oppression of women and gender discrimination, leading many to question whether Sharia family law has a place in the UK today.


Sharia councils exist as unofficial legal bodies whose primary role is to provide guidance on family law matters with a focus on dispute resolution. Under a broader mandate the councils seek to preserve Islamic legal principles in Western societies. However, Sharia Councils are neither unified nor represent a single school of Islamic thought; put simply, there is not one single Islamic legal system. For Muslim women, the predominant reason for using a Sharia Council is to certify an Islamic divorce. Unlike in domestic family law where there are only two grounds for divorce, Sharia law allows for a divorce to be obtained in several different fashions: taleq (unilateral repudiation by the husband); khul (divorce at the instance of the wife with agreement from her husband, and on the condition that she will forego her right to the dower or mehr) and ubara’at (divorce by mutual consent).[1] However, this alternative sphere in which divorce can be sought does not necessarily result in favourable outcomes and women often experience discrimination from the councils.


Sharia Councils act to preserve and stabilise marriages in cases of marital disputes in accordance with their overarching principle of dispute resolution. Such a principle raises the possibility of conflicting interests between Muslim women seeking to obtain an Islamic divorce certificate and the remit of religious scholars whose objectives are to save the marriage. Consequently, a request for dissolution from a woman may fall on deaf ears.


This raises the question of why Muslim women continue to seek assistance from Sharia Councils.  Under Islamic law, divorce is available to women without the consent of their husbands only where a religious scholar determines which category of divorce to award. Sharia Councils have sought to establish authority over the domestic courts in relation to family law, despite similarities in the dispute resolution processes. Bano argues that the distorted understanding “stems from the belief that the secular space inhabited by English family law principles cannot bring about genuine resolution of matrimonial disputes for Muslims living in Britain.”[2] Furthermore, it is thought that many Muslim women opt to use Sharia Councils instead of domestic courts to defend their religious identity. Thus it would appear that there is a misconception about the ability of the domestic courts to deliver justice with regard to their faith. It is clear, however, that the domestic courts cannot dissolve an Islamic religious marriage, only a civil marriage recognised by UK law. This gap in the domestic legal system frequently leaves Muslim women with no choice but to seek divorce from a Sharia council leaving them in a vulnerable position.


Having examined the reasons why many Muslim women resolve their marital disputes through Sharia Councils, we can centre on discussions of how the application of Sharia law allows for women to be the subjects of discrimination and oppression. As discussed above, the focus of Sharia Councils is dispute resolution. When pursuing a divorce, the female applicant is encouraged to enter into unofficial reconciliation and mediation under the direction of a religious scholar. Bano suggests that the process through which an Islamic divorce is obtained allows religious scholars to dispense justice under the shadow of the law.[3] Women, through their compliance with reconciliation and mediation, may be at risk from physical and emotional abuse by their estranged husbands – the men from whom they are seeking protection. This has the potential to leave some Muslim women trapped in abusive marriages.


The process of reconciliation is itself male-dominated and encapsulates traditional values.  Muslim women may therefore struggle to participate equally in this process which has a conservative outlook in regard to the role of women in the family and in wider society. Bano argues it is under this model of reconciliation that men are given greater power in terms of negotiation, which subsequently secures better outcomes for husbands in disputes.[4] This process ultimately marginalises women.


Further discrepancies include the long process of obtaining a divorce from a Sharia Council. Unlike in the domestic courts, Sharia Councils can prolong proceedings for many years, often based on unreasonable conditions such that women give up custody of their children to the father. In this respect there is no official divorce process. Additionally, there are procedural inequalities under Sharia law. The testimony of a woman is only held to be half of the testimony of a man and to obtain a divorce a woman must produce two male witnesses to support her application.[5] Finally, a woman seeking dissolution may be required to pay at least £400 to certify the Islamic divorce, whereas divorce can be obtained free of charge for an Islamic man.[6] In the UK, formal equality underpins the domestic legal system. Sharia family law, on the other hand, cannot boast such equality.


By allowing the operation of Sharia family law in the name of multiculturalism, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation have claimed that Muslim women are victimised and left to suffer.[7] The operation of Islamic religious law in the private domain has resulted in reconciliation escaping scrutiny, whilst the current lack of safeguards enable religious scholars to determine what constitutes acceptable behaviour. Indeed, Baroness Cox recognised the significant threat that Sharia law posed to women when she introduced a Private Members’ Bill in the House of Lords which aimed to increase regulation of informal Sharia Councils.[8]  This proposal would make it an offence for Sharia Councils to establish themselves as courts.


The legal position, in regard to the enforceability of decisions made under Sharia law in the domestic courts, is currently regulated by the Arbitration Act 1996. The Act determines that agreements undertaken by virtue of Sharia law are enforceable in the domestic courts so long as both parties agree to the terms on the outset. This provision applies to Muslim arbitration tribunals whose jurisdiction extends only to commercial and civil disputes, not the informal Sharia Councils as discussed in this article. It is also worth noting that at present there are only seven Muslim arbitration tribunals in the UK.[9] However, there is a fear that the 1996 Act may enable Islamic arbitration tribunals to supplant the domestic court system by implementing Sharia law, and thereby infringing upon the fundamental principles of equality for all which the domestic legal system relies upon.[10]


This raises the question of whether the two systems could operate concurrently. In the UK disputes over the place of alternative legal orders operating within our single-state system are “neither new nor unprecedented”, notes Bano.[11] While domestic law expresses no prejudice to either cultural customs or religious practices, many consider the existence of alternative legal orders to undermine the domestic legal system. It could be said that, in this respect, domestic law does petition uniformity in order to maintain its credibility. Debates more recently have focused on the supposed clash of values between Sharia law and domestic law, as some traditional Islamic values could be seen to be in conflict with a desire for equality. Nevertheless, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams argued that religious practice in domestic law could be beneficial as it may “lead to an inclusive promise of active citizenship, new communities and a renewed relationship between law, faith and religious practice for both majority society and minority ethnic and religious communities.”[12] 


Furthermore, one must question what the concept of multiculturalism requires in the UK today. Raz remarks that “the phenomenon of a multicultural society goes beyond mere toleration and non-discrimination. It involves recognition of the equal standing of all stable and viable cultural communities existing in a society”.[13] As society continues to diversify, it becomes necessary to balance conflicting values held within communities in order to accommodate cultural differences. It is essential that the beliefs of minority groups are reflected in the UK and are not suppressed by the majority view. To argue that the right to freedom of religion can encompass cultural differences is simply unsatisfactory and insufficient as the qualified right provides little protection for ethnic minorities and is widely considered to be ‘ideologically loaded’.[14]


In an attempt to preserve the identity and values of Islam within the UK, some Islamic leaders have called for the Government to recognise a single Sharia Council to secure autonomy in family law disputes. Additionally, there have been demands for the establishment of religious personal law systems. However, could the incorporation of Sharia family law truly be justified when, in practice, it allows for women to be treated as second-class citizens? Williams argued that elements of Sharia law should be incorporated into domestic law such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.[15]  Bainham questions whether domestic family law has the “scope for accommodating a plurality of views about the family and family lifestyles.”[16] Ergo some commentators argue that Sharia family law should be formally recognised within UK law.


At present, it would be irresponsible to formally recognise Sharia family law as there cannot be multiple opposing legal systems operating within the UK. It is, however, essential that there is greater accountability of the existing Sharia Councils and that they are subject to deeper scrutiny to ensure that they are acting in accordance with domestic law. While there is evidently a need to accommodate ethnic, religious and cultural differences to build a multicultural society, permitting Sharia family law – with its poor record on gender equality – would be regressive at a time when society is moving to promote the equality of women.  Sharia family law should therefore not be officially recognised in UK domestic law.


[1] S. Bano, ‘In pursuit of religious and legal diversity: a response to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the “Sharia debate” in Britain’, Ecclesiastical Law Journal (2008), p7

[2] Ibid., p8

[3] Ibid., p9

[4] Ibid., p10

[5] Panorama: Secrets of Britain’s Sharia Councils, BBC One, 22/04/13

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Growing use of Sharia by UK Muslims’, BBC News, 16/01/12

[8] ‘Sharia: a law unto itself?’, The Telegraph, 07/08/11

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bano, ‘In pursuit of religious and legal diversity: a response to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the “Sharia debate” in Britain’, p3

[12] Ibid., p4

[13] Ibid., p5

[14] Ibid., p5

[15] ‘Adopt sharia law in Britain, says the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams’, The Telegraph, 08/02/08

[16] Bainham, ‘Family law in a pluralistic society’, (1995) 22 Journal of Law and Society 234.



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