By Jane Corbin
07 Apr 2013
In a terraced house in East London, just a stone’s throw from the glittering stadiums of the Olympic Park, a handful of people waits in a small reception room. A young Asian woman and her mother hitch their scarves over their heads while a Somali couple stare at the floor.
This is Leyton Islamic Sharia Council, the oldest and most active such council in the country where scholars hear about 50 cases a month, most of them marital disputes. Nine out of 10 cases are brought by women because, in an Islamic marriage, it is far easier for a man to divorce; the only way for a woman is through one of these Sharia councils. No one knows how many there are in Britain today, in mosques and in houses – one report estimates at least 85. Although they cannot enforce their judgments, these councils control the lives of many Muslim women who may only have had a religious marriage. Even if they had a civil marriage too, some feel the need for a Sharia divorce as a way of moving on with their lives and finding a sense of resolution.
A sign outside one of the rooms says “Arbitration”. Inside it looks like a court, a wall lined with religious books and a raised dais for the judge. The tension in here crackles as a couple, who do not want to be identified, argue in front of Leyton’s most senior Islamic scholar, Dr Suhaib Hasan, an elderly man with a white beard wearing long robes.
They have been coming here for a year now. The woman accuses her husband of refusing to work, ignoring the children and verbally abusing her, all of which he vehemently denies. When he is ordered to leave for a moment, she breaks down in tears. “I hate him, he has ruined my life,” she cries. “I cannot bear to even look at him.”
Dr Hasan’s face is impassive as he tells her to give her husband one more month to try and reconcile, with the help of Allah. The woman sobs as she begs him to grant the divorce as she only had a religious marriage and her fate is in the council’s hands.
“We are not just here to issue divorces, we want to mediate first,” Dr Hasan explains. “We try to save marriages so when people come to us we try to reconcile them.”
But this pressure from Sharia councils and the community they serve is causing suffering – Islamic rulings are not always in the interests of women and can run counter to British law.
There are more worrying cases involving domestic violence and children. In Leeds, I met Sonia, an attractive woman in her thirties in a mini-dress and ankle boots. She was granted a civil divorce due to her husband’s extreme violence towards her and their children. He was only allowed indirect access to the children by the courts. But when she went to Leyton for a Sharia divorce, she was told she would have to give up her children to him.
Sharia courts are not allowed to intervene in matters involving child custody, but Leyton’s website features Sharia rulings on children. One Islamic school of thought decrees a father can take custody of a boy at the age of seven and a girl as young as nine. “I could not bear the thought of such a violent person having my children,” Sonia told me. “What was even more shocking was when I explained to Leyton why he shouldn’t have access to the children. Their reaction was – well you can’t go against what Islam says.”
Sonia stood her ground and eventually got Leyton to drop their demand. When asked about Sonia’s case, Leyton said with children if a marriage ends, the question of access to both parents is crucial. Safety is paramount and any UK court order must be followed.
Leyton say they do not advise abused women to return to their husbands, but given what we had heard, we sent an undercover reporter to consult Dr Hasan with a story about an abusive husband.
The Government says domestic violence is a crime that should be reported to the police. The Islamic scholar’s reaction to her account of being hit and whether she should inform the police was to ask her if she was actually being beaten severely – to the extent of having bruises on her body. “The police, that is a very, very last resort,” he said. “If he becomes so aggressive starts hitting and punching you, of course you have to report it to the police.”
Dr Hasan advised her that telling the police would be the final blow as she would have to go to a refuge – which was a very bad option. He also referred our undercover reporter to his wife, a counsellor at Leyton. She too advised against involving the police saying the family was a better option. Both of them suggested she should ask if the violence was due to her own actions and she should strive to be a good wife in every way: cooking, cleaning and looking after her appearance.
When we asked Leyton council about what we filmed secretly they said with domestic violence it may be essential to involve the police and other authorities but that can be a step with irrevocable consequences.
I showed our secret footage to Nazir Afzal, the Chief Crown prosecutor for the North West, a Muslim who has taken the lead in tackling honour-based domestic violence. “I’m disappointed but not surprised,” he said. “Most of them [Sharia councils] are absolutely fine but there are some – clearly like this one – who are putting women at risk. And doing so for ridiculous reasons, namely that they are somehow responsible for the abuse they are suffering.”
In Bristol, Cara, a Muslim convert told me she had met her husband at university and he had persuaded her to only have a Sharia marriage. He ended up abusing her emotionally, controlling her by taking all of her earnings and her student loans. When he brought prostitutes back to their home, Cara ran away to a refuge. She contacted Leyton Sharia council for a divorce but they told her she would have to go to them with her husband for arbitration.
“I was shocked,” says Cara. “Surely they can see that women who have been through this cannot be forced to meet up with someone who is abusing them.”
Sharia councils in other parts of Britain have also meddled in legal issues that should be matters for the UK courts. In Dewsbury, west Yorkshire, an old pub, once the White Hart Inn, is now a Sharia council. Ayesha, a thin and haunted-looking woman in traditional dress and a headscarf told me her husband, who hit her even when she was pregnant, had been imprisoned for his violent behaviour. She and her children had injunctions against him, and yet when she went to Dewsbury Sharia Council for a divorce, they still wanted the couple to meet for mediation.
“I said, I can’t do that as he isn’t even allowed near my house because I’m frightened and can’t face him,” says Ayesha, “but they didn’t take any notice.”
Eventually, when a barrister specialising in family law became involved, Dewsbury agreed to see Ayesha without her husband – but she still had to face five men alone without legal representation. It took her two years to get a divorce; meanwhile, her husband had already moved to Pakistan and married again.
Dewsbury council said they could not comment on individual cases but they are aware of the standing and gravity of UK court orders and would never advise clients to breach them. They can arrange separate meetings on different days to avoid this.
Across the country where there are large Muslim communities, there are now Sharia councils. Some seem to discriminate against women in different ways. Women are required to produce two male witnesses, and it costs a woman at least £400 to get an Islamic divorce while a man can pay nothing. Under Sharia law, a woman must hand over all of her dowry before a divorce can be granted. Sharia marriage is not recognised under UK law, so women are not automatically entitled to half the house or financial assets when it comes to a divorce.
The previous government gave up on its attempt to investigate Sharia councils when they could not get proper access to them. This government’s view is that Sharia law is not law in England and Wales and existing legislation already deals with issues about Sharia councils raised by campaigners. If decisions made by these councils conflicts with national law, then national law will always prevail.
The women I spoke to believe that it is not the Islamic code that is at fault but the way Sharia councils interpret it, and they want them investigated and held accountable.
Sonia, Cara and Ayesha eventually freed themselves from their unhappy marriages – but they believe that many other women in Britain are being condemned by Sharia councils to miserable lives.