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We Call on the British Government to Stop Pushing Minority Women Towards Religious Courts

 

In the light of recent court decisions on marriage and divorce, today we have written to the Ministry of Justice, calling for an urgent review into Sharia and civil marriage and divorce laws and to guarantee access to justice for all.

We welcome the recent High Court decision in Akhter v Khan [2018] EWFC 54 in the UK, to declare that a Muslim marriage contract (nikkah) was ‘void’, rather than a ‘non-marriage’. Shabaz Khan had refused to divorce Nasreen Akhter on the grounds that they did not have a valid marriage registered under English law. This had the effect of keeping Nasreen Akhter in marital captivity and denying her legal rights under English family law.

The outcome means that Nasreen Akthar is entitled to seek a decree of nullity, and hopefully, to obtain financial relief against Shabaz Khan. Even though the decision turned on the specific facts of the case, it is nevertheless significant for women trapped in unregistered marriages and should be examined for its relevance to marital captivity, forced and child marriage.

The judgment does not recognise ‘Sharia’ laws as some in the media have misleadingly stated. It deals with the knotty problem of women who believe that they are married but find that they have an unrecognised religious marriage only. This case shows that they can turn to the formal legal system. In fact, the judgement deals a blow to those who justify the sharia ‘courts’ as the only recourse for women who have not registered their marriages.

Our research shows that the power and control of religious fundamentalist networks over Muslims has grown enormously over the last thirty years. This has led to a widespread belief that a civil marriage is not necessary, that women must have a divorce certificate issued by a Sharia ‘court’ in an apparent judicial procedure; and that they must get this ‘certificate’ even if they already have a civil divorce.

While the judgement is a step in the right direction, the government urgently needs to examine its own complicity in keeping religious fundamentalists in business. Sharia ‘courts’, have been actively tolerated in Britain by being given charitable status and treated as partners by the police and local councils. While the government rejected the recommendation of the sharia review headed by Mona Siddiqui for regulation of the sharia councils; it has quietly ensured the continuing power of religious courts.

The application form for a divorce (Form D8) actively encourages women to turn to religious bodies. It states ‘If you entered into a religious marriage as well as a civil marriage, these divorce proceedings may not dissolve the religious part of your marriage. It is important that you contact the relevant religious authority and seek further guidance if you are unsure.’

If the government is serious about gender equality and ending violence against women, why is it undermining the validity of a civil divorce under English law? Why is it pushing women towards religious courts? For decades, the civil divorce has been the valid certificate demanded by courts abroad, regardless of whether there is also a religious marriage such as a Sikh, Hindu or Muslim ceremony. This guidance undermines women’s rights and the recognition of divorces awarded by British courts.

We call on the government to immediately withdraw this guidance from the divorce application form; to address the lack of access to justice brought about by cuts to legal aid; to overhaul outdated marriage and divorce laws and to take active measures to end religious courts and their control over women’s lives.

Gita Sahgal, Director, Centre for Secular Space

Pragna Patel, Director, Southall Black Sisters

Yasmin Rehman, Women’s Rights Campaigner

Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All

Afsana Lachaux, Women’s Rights Campaigner

Ahlam Akram, Founder, Basira

Amina Lone, Women’s Rights Campaigner

Diana Nammi, Executive Director, Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation

Gina Khan, Spokesperson, One Law for All

Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation

Rahila Gupta, Writer

Rumana Hashem, Spokesperson, Community Women Against Abuse

Sadia Hameed, Spokesperson, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Critical Sisters Director

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive Officer, National Secular Society

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One Law for All coalition rejects Independent Sharia Review

Sharia Laws Are Part of the Extremist Threat and Not a Solution

 

Community Women Against Abuse joins with One Law for All and our coalition partners to express dismay and disappointment at the Independent Sharia Review. We have previously boycotted the Review, along with numerous other women’s rights and human rights organisations and concerned individuals. We had also expressed our grave concerns in an Open letter to the Home Secretary in September 2016. Having read the Review, our fears have been realised, and worse. As the One Law for All coalition points out in the letter below, the Review was secretive and non-transparent. Its analysis and conclusions are superficial and simply not credible. There is absolutely no attempt to engage with the wide body of evidence collected by the coalition and others, which is publicly available, detailing the devastating consequences for women and children of using these ‘courts’, ‘tribunals’ and ‘councils’. The Review chooses to ignore the highly discriminatory, patriarchal and oppressive cultural, religious and political context in which sharia councils operate. It prefers instead to legitimise them, therefore continuing to leave vulnerable women and children at their mercy. We are therefore calling on the Home Secretary to ensure none of the highly questionable recommendations are implemented without proper consultation of advocates who are able to make clear connections with extremism, fundamentalism and inequality.

 

Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP

Secretary of State Home Office

2 Marsham Street

London SW1P 4DF

6th February 2018

Dear Right Hon Amber Rudd, MP,

The Independent Review on Sharia: Sharia Laws are part of the extremist threat and not a solution

As black and minority women and human rights campaigners, we voice our dismay at the outcome of the independent review on Sharia laws commissioned by the government in 2016. Although the government has rejected formal recognition (through regulation), the way has been left open for the Sharia courts to continue to exist in a no-man’s land where they continue to produce discriminatory parallel laws while posing as an acceptable alternative dispute mechanism. Now they will be strengthened by a review that has endorsed their existence.

At the outset, we feared a whitewash but what we have seen is worse. The review is superficial, narrow and secretive; and completely lacks credibility.  We protested when the Home Office appointed a theologian to lead the review and two Imams as advisers. How absurd that the Home Office now claims that the review ‘was not tasked with considering theological issues, for example whether Islam and Sharia law treat women in an unequal way’. Why then appoint three people whose only qualification for the job was their status as religious scholars?

Any review that is based on interviewing only eight women and a handful of organisations; and that provoked a boycott from most of the organisations that deal with women adversely affected by religious laws, cannot be considered legitimate. Demands for the acceptance of Sharia laws to govern family matters are part of a wider fundamentalist and ultra conservative goal to normalise profoundly misogynist values in the law and other public spaces. Our front-line experience has found clear evidence that both the intent and the process of the Sharia courts is abusive and discriminatory; that the Sharia bodies are run by organisations with links to extremist organisations; and promote the full range of fundamentalist goals such as strict gender segregation, imposition of hijabs and other dress codes, homophobia, bigotry and discrimination against non-Muslims and Muslim dissenters, blasphemy laws and attacks on apostates.

Our research also shows that they do refer to ‘courts’ and ‘Judges’, because of a clear intention of establishing themselves as a parallel law which ‘good Muslims’ must adhere to. The review suggests that that they are ‘Councils’ only and thus sanitises them.

In order to arrive at its conclusions, the reviewers conducted no investigation and ignored evidence that would have undermined their conclusions. They ignored the wider political fundamentalist drive to undermine human rights. They also ignored a considerable body of evidence submitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee in Parliament by members of our coalition and others. For instance, Maryam Namazie submitted two statements in evidence which contained details of statements made by Islamic law ‘Judges’, that exposed their wider political agenda.  Knowing that hate speech and discriminatory speech is regularly erased from websites once it has been exposed, she had taken screenshots of their statements. She stated in conclusion, ‘despite all efforts to package Sharia’s civil code as mundane, its imposition represents a concerted attempt by Islamists to gain further influence in Britain’. If the reviewers did not wish to draw on our submissions, they could have applied some diligence and researched it themselves. Why did they not do so?

The coalition also gathered detailed testimony from many women. Unlike the reviewers, we did not ask for evidence solely from women who had experience of sharia courts, although we met and interviewed many who had tried to get a divorce under ‘sharia law’, were deeply traumatised by the experience and experienced further violence and abuse of their rights.  We also published and put in evidence to parliament, a devastating letter signed by over 300 abused and marginalised women from all religious backgrounds expressing their fear of being controlled by religious laws.

Sweeping statements are made about the “choice” that Muslim women make to approach such councils without giving any consideration to the highly constrained religious context in which that “choice” is made. The review is utterly silent on the crucial concept of ‘zina’ (sex outside marriage), the grave sin punishable by death in many Muslim countries. It is fear of ‘zina’ which compels many women, even those with civil divorces to seek an Islamic divorce. Procedural changes in sharia councils will not diminish their role in spreading this concept; to which they provide the only ‘solution’. That is why use of Sharia bodies is increasing. Evidence before the Home Affairs Select Committee makes clear that fundamentalists insist that a civil divorce cannot be final. Yet earlier generations of women had civil marriage (as well as a Muslim marriage contract) and were satisfied with a civil divorce. Increased religious bullying is a major reason for women’s recourse to sharia, not simply their ‘conscience’. Indeed, the form of Sharia which the theologians of the panel have failed to challenge is much more regressive than Muslim personal laws in Muslim majority countries.

Unlike the review, we have shown that women cannot engage with Sharia Councils or the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal in relation to their divorce without this also impacting on their rights and freedoms in other areas. Our research shows that Sharia Courts/ Councils deal with more than divorce – they impose ‘mediation’, promote polygamy and child marriage, and interfere with child custody and criminal proceedings in relation to domestic violence. The review made no serious attempt to investigate these issues.

The review stands in direct contrast to the devastating observations made by Dame Louise Casey in her report in 2016 “women in some communities are facing a double onslaught of gender inequality, combined with religious, cultural and social barriers preventing them from accessing even their basic rights as British residents...”

A forensic examination of the operation of Sharia in Britain lays bare what fundamentalists do to achieve their goals, not merely what they think. We do not accuse them simply of ‘thought crimes’ but of promoting crimes and human rights violations.

The review is a botched attempt at consultation established with flawed terms of reference and an explicit disregard for gender discrimination. The government and the reviewers have failed the women most affected and ignored the concerns of rights advocates.

We will be providing a more detailed submission. Meanwhile, we call on you, as Home Secretary, to ensure that none of the recommendations contained in the review are implemented without consultation with those advocates who are able to make clear connections with extremism, fundamentalism and inequality. The government has, so far, failed in its duty to make an equality impact assessment, which it needs to do with the full weight of evidence before it.  Continued indifference to the government’s duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights will leave us in no doubt that there is no change to the social contract in which women’s rights are traded off as part of a process of appeasement of fundamentalists and extremists.

We look forward to your response,

Sincerely,

Gita Sahgal and Yasmin Rehman, Co-Directors, Centre for Secular Space

Pragna Patel, Director Southall Black Sisters

Diana Nammi, Executive Director IKRWO

Houzan Mahmoud, Culture Project

Sadia Hameed, Spokesperson of Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain

Rumana Hashem, Human Rights Advocate and Spokesperson, Community Women Against Abuse

Nasreen Rehman, Human Rights Advocate

Gina Khan, Spokesperson, One Law for All

Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All


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Why Regulation is Not the Answer: 15 Black and Minority Women’s Rights Campaigners Explain

‘Sharia’ and other religious systems of arbitration are back in the news once again. There appears to be growing recognition of the profoundly discriminatory nature of religious arbitration systems which relegate Muslim and other minority women to second rate systems of justice. But is regulation the answer?

A joint statement signed by 15 prominent black and minority women’s rights campaigners clarified yesterday that “regulation is neither desirable nor viable” for several reasons.  In the signed statement the women’s rights campaigners stated that:

A close examination of the workings of ‘Sharia’ Councils and the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal reveal serious failings that flout principles of the rule of law and undermine the rights of women in fundamental ways. These forums use fundamentalist and ultra-conservative definitions of ‘Sharia laws’ in highly selective and authoritarian ways; they seek to impose a social culture of ‘Zina’ which compel women to resolve marital and family disputes using ‘Sharia laws’ or risk becoming social outcastes and worse.

Evidence from the UK and elsewhere shows that such religious arbitration bodies function primarily as a means of exercising control over female sexuality and autonomy. They do not treat women as full persons before the law, but instead subject them to degrading questions and investigative procedures and impede them from leaving violent relationships even if they experience torture or ill-treatment and are at risk of losing their lives. The emphasis is centrally on reconciliation even if this conflicts with the protection principle and gender equality. Questions of marriage, divorce, inheritance, financial and children arrangements as well as polygamy and other cultural forms of harm, must be determined by the civil and criminal laws of the land and not so called ‘religious laws.’ This also means that all religious marriages must be registered by law.

Politicians and lawyers would do well to listen to the voices of over 300 abused minority women who signed a letter last year describing how their rights are violated on a daily basis. Any incorporation and recognition of religious forums would sanction the place of religious leaders in making decisions about women’s lives and normalise deeply patriarchal value systems.

We therefore urge caution in accepting the suggestion that a ‘compromise’ involving regulation and training provides a way forward.  Regulation is neither desirable nor viable for the following reasons:

  • The sheer diversity of religious interpretations would make regulation unachievable;
  • Parallel legal systems create and legitimise arbitrary systems of ‘justice’ which means less scrutiny by state institutions out of fear of ‘causing offence’;
  • There will not be sufficient resources to offer impartial judicial oversight of religious arbitration bodies to ensure compatibility with anti-discrimination and human rights law;
  • In the wider society there is continuing public scrutiny and revision of law and policy and under a democratic parliamentary process but religious law is not open to such scrutiny;
  • There is no political will to reform from within – religious forums around the world have been resistant to progressive reforms on women;
  • Self regulation through bodies such as The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) and the Board of Sharia Councils has failed to ensure the rights of women and children are protected;
  • The accommodation of such forums, will amount to state sponsorship of fundamentalist and authoritarian forms of governance that encourage intolerance, misogyny and homophobia.

As black and minority women, we demand adherence to one legal system grounded within universal human rights principles. We cannot and will not settle for anything less.”

Signatories:

Pragna Patel, Director, Southall Black Sisters
Yasmin Rehman, Trustee, Centre for Secular Space
Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All
Diana Nammi, Executive Director, Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation
Sadia Hameed, Spokesperson, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Gina Khan, Spokesperson, One Law for All
Houzan Mahmoud, Cofounder, Culture Project
Rahila Gupta, Writer and Journalist
Sara Khan, CEO, Inspire
Nasreen Rehman, Forced Marriage Commission
Marieme Helie Lucas, Founder, Secularism is a Woman’s Issue
Fatou Sow, International Director, Women Living Under Muslim Laws.
Gita Sahgal, Director, Centre for Secular Space
Rumana Hashem, Founder, Community Women Against Abuse and Former-organiser of Nari Diganta
Elham Manea, Author of Women and Shari’a Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK

 

Women’s rights campaigners hold hand written placards against Sharia law. 14 December 2016

For further information, contact:

Pragna Patel
Director of Southall Black Sisters
pragna@southallblacksisters.co.uk
02085719595

Gina Khan and Maryam Namazie
Spokespersons of One Law for All
onelawforall@gmail.com
07719166731


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GENDER SEGREGATION AMOUNTS TO SEX DISCRIMINATION

PRESS RELEASE

 

On 11 and 12 July 2017, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and Inspire will be intervening in an important case on gender segregation to press the Court of Appeal to rule that the practice of gender segregation in a voluntary aided Muslim co-ed school amounts to sex discrimination under the equality law.  This is a potentially historical and precedent setting case, the outcome of which will have a far reaching impact on the human rights of minority women and girls.

 

Background to the case

 

School X segregates its pupils based on their gender. From the age of 9 to 16, boys and girls of Muslim background are segregated for everything – during lessons and all breaks, activities and school trips.

 

The school was inspected by Ofsted which raised concerns about gender segregation and other leadership failings involving the absence of effective safeguarding procedures, and an unchallenged culture of gender stereotyping and homophobia. Offensive books promoting rape, violence and against women and misogyny were discovered in the school library. Some girls also complained anonymously that gender segregation did not prepare them for social interaction and integration into the wider society. As a result of what it found during the inspection, Ofsted judged the school to be inadequate and placed it in special measures.

 

The school took legal action against Ofsted accusing it of bias amongst other things, and claimed that gender segregation did not have a detrimental impact on girls. Following a High Court hearing, in November 2016, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Jay, found no evidence of bias against the school but agreed with the school that gender segregation did not amount to sex discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. He went onto say that no evidence had been presented to show that gender segregation disadvantaged the girls in the school.

 

Ofsted is seeking to overturn this part of the judgment but the Department of Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, along with SBS and Inspire are intervening in support of Ofsted.

 

Why are we intervening

 

SBS and Inspire are intervening in this case because we believe that the right to equality for women and girls of Muslim background in this instance is being seriously undermined. We are alarmed by the growing acceptance of such a practice in our universities and schools; a move that we have also previously contested. In a context where all the evidence shows that minority women are subject to growing abuse, isolation, inequality and powerlessness, the practice of gender segregation cannot be viewed as a benign development because it is informed by the Muslim fundamentalist view that women are inferior and the cause of disorder and sexual chaos in society. If unchecked, the practice will give religious fundamentalist and ultra-conservative forces in our communities more and more power to define women’s lives. It will also signal the view that regulatory bodies like Ofsted have no business in investigating issues of gender inequality in faith based schools. We say that gender segregation amounts to direct sex discrimination and violates the fundamental rights and freedoms of women and girls under international human rights law on equality and non-discrimination.

 

Pragna Patel of SBS said: “Fundamentalist and conservative religious norms like gender segregation are becoming normalised in minority communities at an alarming rate. Separate can never be equal in a context of rising misogyny, violence against women and patriarchal control. Regressive religious forces want to implement their fundamentalist vision of education. They want to use religion to extinguish the human rights of minority women and girls to equality and self determination. We will not allow this to happen. We will not allow them to undo the strides that we have made for greater equality and freedom. Our struggle against gender segregation mirrors the struggle against racial segregation: it is morally, politically and legally wrong and the Court of Appeal and the rest of society must recognise this.”

 

Sara Khan of Inspire said: “I am deeply concerned about the rise and accommodation of gender segregation in our schools and universities.  This is due in large part to the rise of fundamentalist patriarchal movements over the last few decades which seeks to reinforce regressive gender stereotypes and restrict women’s rights in an attempt to deny women full and equal participation in public life.  I have seen first hand the damaging impact of gender segregation on women and girls.  As a British Muslim woman, I call on our country and our judiciary to stand on the side of equality and women’s rights, at a time when illiberals and fundamentalists seek to do away with them.

 

Maryam Namazie from One Law for All added: “Islamists have become adept at using rights language to impose rights restrictions. Islamist projects like the niqab or Sharia courts are deceptively promoted as “rights” and “choices” when in fact their aim is to control and restrict women and girls. Girls in Islamic schools are segregated not in order to enable them to flourish but because they are seen to be the source of fitnah and male arousal from puberty onwards. Which is why they must be veiled, segregated, and prevented from many activities that are essential to child development. The court would do well to remember that when it comes to children in particular, there is a duty of care to ensure that the girl child has access to a level playing field and is able to flourish – sometimes despite the wishes of parents and fundamentalists.”

 

For more background information visit http://www.southallblacksisters.org.uk/news/gender-segregation-is-gender-ap artheid

See the High Court judgment here: https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/x-v-ofsted.pdf and here: https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/x-v-oftsed-press-su mmary.pdf

Community Women’s Blog, Nari Diganta and Southall Black Sisters are part of the One Law for All campaign which also includes the Kurdish Culture Project, Centre for Secular Space and others working to challenge the rise of religious fundamentalism and extremism and it specific impact on  the rights of black and minority women in the UK. We are currently running a campaign against the accommodation of Sharia laws in the law or as part of alternative dispute resolution systems in relation to family matters. See details here: https://communitywomenblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/22/womens-rights-campaigners-echoed-the-voices-of-300-bame-victims-survivors-of-abusive-religious-related-practices-codeswho-will-listen-to-our-voices/

Information about previous contestations against gender segregation in universities can be found below: http://www.southallblacksisters.org.uk/news/campaign-gender-apartheid-uk-universities   https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/pragna-patel/’shariafication-by-stealth‘ -in-uk  http://www.wewillinspire.com/tag/segregation/


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“Glastonbury of Freethinkers” in defence of free conscience and expression to be held in London

There is not much time left for the historic 22-23 July 2017 conference, being dubbed the “Glastonbury of Freethinkers”. The conference jointly organised by One Law for All and Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain will mark the 10th anniversary of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB). “We will honour our dissenters and celebrate freethought”, said Maryam Namazie , the spokesperson of the CEMB.

It is set to be the largest international gathering of ex-Muslim activists and freethinkers in London. Over 70 speakers and acts including comedy, music and art will discuss censorship and blasphemy laws, freedom of and from religion, apostasy, the limits of religion’s role in society, LGBT and women’s rights, atheism, secular values and more, to be held to defend freedom of conscience and expression and argue that freedoms are not western but universal. If you wish to be part of what will be an historic event, you can register via Secular Conference website.

You can find out more about the conference aims in The Freethinker interview with Marieme Helie Lucas and Maryam Namazie.

Get your ticket here: http://www.secularconference.com/get-tickets/

Read more about the conference: http://www.secularconference.com/

 

 


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Women’s rights campaigners echoed the voices of 300+ BAME victims & survivors of abusive religious related practices & codes: ‘Who will listen to our voices?’

End of Year Update on Campaign to Dismantle Parallel Legal Systems

By Rumana Hashem

Over 300 women of Black and Minority communities, abused by religious bodies such as Sharia Councils in the UK, have signed a statement opposing Sharia courts and religious bodies, warning of the mounting threats to their rights and to their collective struggles for security and independence. The letter published on 14 December 2016 on Open Democracy 50.50 reads as below:

We are women who have experienced abuse and violence in our personal lives. Most of us come from Muslim backgrounds, but some of us come from other minority faiths.

We are compelled to voice our alarm about the growing power of religious bodies such as Sharia Councils and their bid for control over our lives. We oppose any religious body – whether presided over by men or women – that seeks to rule over us: because they do not have any authority to speak or make decisions on our behalf and because they are not committed to women’s rights and social justice. Whether we are women of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Christian faiths or of no faith, we have much in common with each other in the face of cruelty, tyranny and discrimination in our families, in our communities, and in the wider society. Many of us are deeply religious, but for us religion is in our hearts: a private matter between us and our God. Religion is not – and must not be – something that can be used to deny us our freedom or the little pieces of happiness that we find by mixing and borrowing from many different traditions and cultures which give meaning to our otherwise difficult existence.

We know from personal experiences that many religious bodies such as Sharia Councils are presided over by hard line or fundamentalist clerics who are intolerant of the very idea that women should be in control of their own bodies and minds. These clerics claim to be acting according to the word of God: but they are often corrupt, primarily interested in making money and abuse their positions of power by shaming and slandering those of us who reject those aspects of our religions and cultures that we find oppressive. We pay a huge price for not submitting to domestic violence, rape, polygamy and child abuse and other kinds of harm. For this reason alone, we are fearful of religious laws and rulings from such bodies. Our experience in our countries of origin and in our communities tells us that they are deeply discriminatory and divisive. They will weaken our collective struggles for security and independence.

We struggle to fit into this country and to educate our children, especially our daughters, and to protect them and give them a better life. We struggle to have our experiences of violence and abuse addressed properly in accordance with the principles of equality and justice for all. We do not wish to be judged by reference to fundamentalist codes that go against our core values of compassion, tolerance and humanity. We do not want to go backwards or to be delivered back into the hands of our abusers and those who shield them.

Many of us have not made public comments on this issue, because we are afraid of the consequences of doing so openly. All of us have faced abuse and we are desperately trying to rebuild our lives in the face of constant and continuing threats and trauma. Some of us have used only our first names to support this statement, but we feel strongly enough about this matter to do so.

We do not want Sharia Councils or other religious bodies to rule our lives. We demand the right to be valued as human beings and as equals before one law for all. We demand the right to follow our own desires and aspirations.

 

To view the names of the signatories and the nature of human rights violation and abuse experienced by individual signatories, please check out the article: The Sharia debate in the UK: who will listen to our voices?

 

In the meantime the coalition of women’s rights campaigners against parallel legal systems and Sharia Councils in the UK has launched a fresh campaign on social media for One Law for ALL which went viral two days before the closure of final evidence submission to Home Affairs Select Committee. The online campaign appeared on the same day as the letter from 300+ abused women opposing Sharia courts in the UK was published on Open Democracy.  The campaign by secular women’s rights campaigners on twitter and Facebook preceded by a hash sign “One Law for ALL”, ending with a hash sign “Struggle Not Submission” – a slogan used by the ex-WAF  members  , echoed the voices of 300 BAME victims and survivors of abusive practices and codes of religious bodies. The power of the campaign is in the slogans and the placards written and made by the women’s rights campaigners who experienced various forms of oppressions by Sharia and religious codes and practices.

 

They said: “injustice is injustice even when it comes from people of colour”, “our community women do not want to be re-victimised by Sharia judges”, “minority women are not extensions of the ‘community’, regressive imams & Sharia judges – they are citizens with rights”, “it is racist to fob off minority women to kangaroo courts”, “polygamy is abuse and violation of women’s Rights”, “Sharia law legitimises under-age marriage & honour-based violence against women”, “the impunity that Sharia courts enjoy must be ended”, “listen to women who know: don’t allow them to be silenced by anyone” . “By accommodating Sharia courts and Betei Din, the UK government is itself in breach of its obligations to gender equality”.

 

Besides, Maryam Namazie of One Law for All lodged supplementary written submission of evidence to Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) Inquiry into Sharia Councils. And, on the final day of evidence supplementary evidence submission, Prgana Patel of Southall Black Sisters has submitted further evidence and long testimonies of victims and survivors of parallel legal systems to HASC on 16 December 2016.  These latest submission by One Law for All and Southall Black Sister are undeniable. The final submissions of devastating evidence made a luminous end of the year 2016.  We shall hope that these last minute yet detailed and powerful evidences will enlighten the blind government and the allegedly bias Home Affairs Select Committee. We can hope for a bright, enlightened, equal, free, fair and tolerant new year.

Hope, Peace and Happy wishes to all Community Women’s Blog readers for 2017!

Read more:

Sharia courts have no place in UK family law. Listen to women who know

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/14/sharia-courts-family-law-women

Supplementary written evidence submitted by One Law for All http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/sharia-councils/written/44036.html

#OneLawforAllBecause  #StruggleNotSubmission


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Denounce Those Playing Political Games with Women’s Lives over Sharia and Islamophobia

Rumana Hashem

This is probably an overdue update for community women’s blog readers on our campaign against Sharia Councils in Britain. We are aware that our blog has largely been dominated by stories of Bangladeshi community for a while. Due to the ongoing political situation and violence against women and minorities in Bangladesh, we needed to prioritise stories of Bangladeshi-British women and news from Bangladesh. However, this is a critical juncture when we must return to an ongoing issue of Islamophobia and the status of our campaign against parallel legal systems in Britain.

 

Muslim women and secular activists in East London joined Nari Digantas's panelists and representatives of eight Muslim women's organsiations, to abolish Sharia In Britain. Monteforio Centrre on 15 Oct 2014 by Golam Rabbani of Diamond Studio

Muslim women and secular activists in East London joined Nari Diganta’s panelists and representatives of eight Muslim women’s organsiations to abolish Sharia in Britain. Monteforio Centrre on 15 Oct 2014 by Golam Rabbani of Diamond Studio

Following the commitment to dismantle abusive practices of Sharia Councils, religious arbitration in family matters and parallel legal system in the UK, minority women’s rights campaigners have been urging the government to fully and impartially investigate Sharia bodies.  Although the UK government is conducting an inquiry into the operation of Sharia Councils which was launched in spring 2016, this is being boycotted by secular and minority women’s organisations, including East London based women’s rights organisation Nari Diganta and the core coalition against parallel legal systems, for reasons explained in this article . In short, the remit of government’s inquiry is too narrow, and the panel of judges are not ‘independent’ enough to undertake an impartial investigation.

On July 4, a letter, signed by an unprecedented number of women’s rights campaigners and organisations from Britain and internationally, was submitted to the Home Secretary raising serious concerns about the government’s ‘independent review’ into Sharia councils in Britain. Our letter stated that the limited scope of inquiry and its inappropriate theological approach will do nothing to address the discriminatory effect and intent of the courts on private and family matters – areas where, arguably, the greatest human rights violations of minority women in the UK take place. Rather than taking a human rights approach, the government has constituted a panel and terms of reference more suited to a discussion in theology than one which serves the needs of victims whose human rights are violated.  By making religious appointments, the government has lost a vital opportunity to examine the discriminatory nature of not only Sharia bodies but all forms of religious arbitration.

Despite grave concerns, Theresa May’s government is moving ahead with its controversial Sharia review.  At the same time the UK’s Home Affairs Select Committee has launched an inquiry into the compatibility of Sharia with British law. Some frontline organisations and women’s rights activists including Southall Black Sisters, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, Centre for Secular Space, One Law for All, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the Culture Project, and Yasmin Rehman have submitted written evidence to Home Affairs Select Committee. A few of these campaigners were invited to attend oral Evidence Session held on 1 November and they gave robust evidence under hostile environment by Islamist MPs.

 

Women's' rights campaigners challenged the unbalanced inquiry on Sharia Councils at the public meeting on "Sharia Law, religious arbitration and access to Justice" at the Parliament on 7 November 2016. Photo credit: Southall Black Sisters

Women’s’ rights campaigners challenged the unbalanced inquiry into Sharia Councils at the public meeting on “Sharia Law, religious arbitration and access to Justice” at the Parliament on 7 November 2016. Photo credit: Southall Black Sisters

 

There are currently two parallel enquiries running, one by the government and one by Home Affairs Select Committee, both of which appeared to have imbalances.  Earlier this month, certain committee members in the UK’s Home Affairs Select Committee launched personal attack against a secular women’s rights campaigner, Maryam Namazie of One Law for All, who was invited to provide oral evidence following a call for evidence submission  against abusive practices of Britains’ Sharia Councils. Muslim women’s rights campaigners such as Yasmin Rehman, who expressed wish to attend oral evidence session by all means, was left out of the committee room as uninvited, while Maryamn Namazie an Iranian born secular feminist who worked closely with victims of Muslim origin and who provided powerful oral evidence on Sharia abuse at oral evidence session was faced with a personal attack as unrepresentative of Muslim women.

A committee member Naz Shah MP asserted that she wants to have a choice for Sharia divorce. The Pakistani origin -‘British-Muslim’ committee member Shah insisted that she is aware of many Muslim women who may use Sharia Councils. For Shah, a closure of Sharia Councils in Britain would mean that the option for a Sharia divorce of many Muslim women in the UK would be taken away. She asserted: ‘My choice would have been taken away’.  We don’t know if Shah will ever go to a Sharia council for divorce though, she wants to have the choice to have a Sharia divorce!

Using her parliamentary privilege, Naz Shah MP accused Namazie that her suggestion for closing down Sharia Councils would have discriminated against all religious believers. Without any proof, she said: ‘the people I have been talking to in the last 24 hours have told me that there is an air of Islamophobia and racism about this whole debate’. It would be interesting to know who are those people that Naz Shah MP had spoken for 24 hours to defend Sharia councils.

The antagonist comments by the MP in question was criticised by concerned secular groups and women’s rights campaigners. Yet she has not apologised for her misconduct and disgraceful attack against a women’s rights campaigner, while the oral evidence session was supposed to focus on Sharia Councils and its adverse effect on women’s lives.

 

The shocking part for me was the latest news that the Home Affairs Select Committee has asked victims of Sharia abuse to attend a physical event in Whitechapel in East London to be testified by committee members.  As an activist-academic – having completed a doctoral research in gendered violence, being engaged in teaching and research in feminist methodology and ethics in social work, and having invested nearly two decades in working with Muslim women and survivors of religious arbitration in Bangladesh and Britain – I found it hard to believe that the Committee intended to meet with survivors and victims’ in this manner. Whatever it is- insensibility or insanity – this raises many questions in connection with the ethics of the Home Affairs Select Committee appointed to investigate a delicate matter like abuse of women by Sharia in private life, and abuse in the name of religion. Whilst wondering about the motive, opportunity and objective of the Home Affairs Select Committee, I am leaving this blog by keeping my doubts to be explained in a later article at a wider platform, beyond the community women.

 

To end this report, I would like to call upon all community women’s blog readers to name and shame these politicians who fail to see how their policy could violate women’s fundamental human rights. Both the government and the Home Affairs Select Committee seem playing with Muslim women over Sharia and Islamophobia. In the name of choice of Muslim women and religious freedom, the Home Affairs Select Committee is directly acting on behalf of Islamists whose votes matter to the MPs more than women’s lives. The Committee members seem blind enough to not able to see how this ask for testifying victims and survivors of Sharia Councils could cause secondary trauma and further safety issues to many women who are in need of legal protection and access to justice.  Instead of protecting the women who gave witnesses in anonymous forms to their nominated women’s rights advocates, the committee has embarked on a project to promote violation of human rights of those survivors who are already faced with violence and abuse.

 

This update for community women’s blog readers includes a new Written evidence submitted to Home Affairs Select Committee by Southall Black Sisters, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, Centre for Secular Space, One Law for All, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the Culture Project, including Evidence Session held on 1 November. The new written evidence that was submitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee by the core coalition of women’s rights organisations against Sharia Councils in the UK is as follows:

We refer to recent emails from the Home Affairs Select Committee to Southall Black Sisters and the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation requesting us to help find Muslim women who have ‘used’ Sharia Councils, to attend an event in Whitechapel, East London, on 24 November 2016 in connection with your inquiry.

We are a coalition of organisations who have an immense track record in providing front line services and in campaigning for the human rights of black and minority women. Our coalition includes Southall Black Sisters, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, Centre for Secular Space, One Law for All, British Muslims for Secular Democracy and the Culture Project: we represent some of the most marginalised groups in our society. Between us, we have over 100 years of combined experience of working with women from all faith backgrounds, the majority of whom come from a Muslim background.

Many of us have supported minority women, adults and children of all religious backgrounds to resist powerful cultural and religious constraints that prevent them from exiting from violence and abuse and impede their ability to assert their rights as citizens of this country. It has taken long and often painful struggles to give minority women a voice and to facilitate their access to the formal legal system that many see as their ultimate safety net. We have seen that, without proper and informed access to the civil and criminal justice system and to the welfare state, women are left to the vagaries of arbitrary and discriminatory systems of community arbitration, including Sharia Councils – the subject of the current inquiry by the Home Affairs Select Committee. The experiences of women in these circumstances suggest that such parallel legal systems create a lethal space for the resurrection and perpetuation of patriarchal control over and harm to women, vulnerable adults, and children. It is precisely because of these experiences that, in many parts of the Muslim world, women are resisting Sharia laws and religious impositions.

It is against this background, that we are compelled to raise three specific areas of concern that have arisen in relation to your inquiry:

  1. First, we have to say that we are puzzled by your request for women who have personally used Sharia Councils to participate in the event in East London, and we are compelled to decline it for a number of significant reasons:

(a) Why is the Select Committee only interested in hearing from Muslim women who have ‘personally used’ Sharia Councils? There are an equal if not greater number of Muslim women who, for very valid reasons, do not wish to use these Councils out of fear and distrust arising from their own negative experiences of religious control in their communities. Many women confronting honour based abuse, for instance, will not use Sharia Councils because they feel angry and let down by their communities and religious authorities. Many recount the ways in which they have been subject to religious abuse of power, including sexual abuse, and for these reasons they are fearful of being subject to further abuse and humiliation in Sharia Councils. Their experiences and reasons for rejecting Sharia Councils are as valid as those who ‘use’ Sharia Councils. When will these women’s voices be heard?

(b) Many women that we see are deeply traumatised and still in crisis situations. They are often unwilling or fearful of taking part in events that involve revealing intimate details of their lives, especially of a sexual nature, in front of other people (even women) not known to them. Most fear making any kind of disclosure or of raising any criticism of religious authority in unfamiliar and unsafe environments. Our experience of providing counselling, group therapy and support for the extremely vulnerable women with whom we work is that they need to feel confident in safe spaces with which they are familiar before they will disclose their experiences. They have to develop a strong affinity with other women based on shared experiences and mutual respect before they open up to others, even if they are from the same community.

(c) It is impractical for some women who live in North and West London or even outside London to travel to East London. Many are extremely vulnerable or destitute, or have work or child care responsibilities that make it difficult for them to travel long distances. We therefore propose that the Select Committee gives serious consideration to our request to meet women who have used Sharia Councils as well as those who have not, in safe venues across London and the UK, with the support of their advocates and to also consult and take evidence from their advocates who can speak to their experiences. SBS and IKWRO for example, are willing to facilitate access to women who use their services by organising a closed session at the premises of SBS, in West London, where advocates and counsellors will also be on hand to provide evidence and additional support to the women who attend.

  1. We are concerned that the inquiry sessions on Tuesday 1 November 2016, at which witnesses were invited to present their evidence, were highly unbalanced and weighted in favour of those who support Sharia Councils in some form or other.

(a) The sessions consisted of 3 panels of witnesses. Out of a total of ten witnesses who appeared, seven spoke in favour of Sharia Councils (four of whom actually ran Sharia Councils), one remained neutral and only two witnesses – Dr Elham Manea and Ms Maryam Namazie – were called to present their counter arguments. We note that some of those who gave evidence were invited to do so even though they had not made any written submissions to the inquiry.

(b) Whilst we accept that witnesses who speak in favour of the role of Sharia Councils have every right to be heard, we question whether the inquiry can be said to be fair or impartial when the evidence sessions were so clearly slanted in favour of those who have a vested interest in maintaining the role of Sharia Councils over family matters.

(c) In our view, the inquiry needs to hear evidence from expert witnesses who can provide specific examples of how abused women have been re-traumatised and placed at risk following their engagement with Sharia Councils. Most of the abused women that use our services seek a divorce only after they have left abusive relationships, but they are almost always compelled to return to the abuse by Sharia Councils and other religious arbitration bodies, even if this breaches civil and criminal laws and good practice and policies in respect of mediation and reconciliation in gender-based violence cases. In other words, they are forced back underground.

(d) It must be a matter of concern that the Select Committee appears to have chosen not to hear from witnesses experienced in front line advocacy work with BME women – work which has necessarily involved the invocation of human rights and equalities legislation to challenge Sharia laws. The Public Sector Equality Duty for example has been successfully invoked to address the ways in which fundamentalist interpretations of Sharia laws have been utilised by advocates of parallel legal systems to demand gender segregation in public spaces and Sharia compliant wills in inheritance matters. These very same fundamentalist interpretations of Sharia laws are invoked in Sharia Councils and the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal. We are also worried about the focus of the inquiry on divorce when these ‘courts’ address everything from polygamy, child custody, domestic violence, marital rape, marital captivity, forced marriages and more.

  1. Finally we wish to place on record our concern about the line of questioning of Maryam Namazie at the evidence session referred to above.

(a) In particular, the tone and manner in which she was allowed to be questioned by Naz Shah MP brought discredit to the Select Committee and its approach to the issues under scrutiny. In particular, the specific suggestion that Maryam Namazie was ‘anti-faith’ appeared to provide a pretext to discount Maryam’s evidence: such tactics can and do contribute to a culture that incites religious hatred and violence towards those, especially from Muslim backgrounds, who are perceived to be apostates, atheists and non-conformists.

(b) As you will be aware, we have already seen a rise in religiously motivated hate crimes towards so called apostates that has even led to murder in the UK. (See the case of Asad Shah who was killed in Glasgow in March 2016.) Given her own background, we would have expected Ms Shah to understand the dangers of portraying those who do not conform to their faith in such negative terms.

(c) We trust you will agree that, as an MP and member of the Select Committee, Ms Shah has a duty to exercise due care and to behave fairly to all the witnesses at all times, whether or not she agrees with them. In our view, she breached that duty in this instance, and we shall be interested to know what you have to say in that regard.

We hope that you will give serious attention to the concerns we have raised. Please treat this letter as a submission to the inquiry. We are also attaching an open letter by us regarding the government’s review of Sharia Councils setting out our concerns which are relevant to this inquiry too.

We look forward to your response.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you need any clarification or have queries arising from the contents of this letter.

Signed by:

Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters
Gita Sahgal, Director of Centre for Secular Space
Maryam Namazie and Gina Khan, Spokespersons for One Law for All
Diana Nammi, Executive Director of Iranian and Kurdish Women’s organisation
Nasreen Rehman, Co-Founder and Chair of British Muslims for Secular Democracy.
Yasmin Rehman, Muslim Women’s Rights Activist and Trustee of Centre for Secular Space
Houzan Mahmoud, Spokesperson for Culture Project

 

Further related information:

Elham Manea (2016), “Women and Sharia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK” (documentation of the harmful and even life threatening consequences of privatised justice and legal pluralism for minority women who are denied the right to equality before the law), UK: I. B. Tauris. 

Video of oral evidence given by women’s rights campaigners of our coalition against Sharia Councils can be accessed here :

Video Footage of never before seen testimonies from women, and the public meetings in London and Manchester, organised by Southall Black Sisters with BME women’s groups: http://tinyurl.com/zk5q697

Written testimonies gathered with partner organisations can be accessed here: http://tinyurl.com/gqk83ms

Written evidence submitted by the Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO)

Written evidence submitted by Southall Black Sisters

Written evidence submitted to Home Affairs Select Committee by One Law for All

Written evidence submitted by the British Muslims for Secular Democracy

Report on Sharia Council and evidence submitted by freelance consultant Yasmin Rehman

May’s inquiry into sharia is not fit for purpose, The Times, 11 July 2016

Inside Sharia Councils, Victoria Derbyshire Programme, 11 July 2016

Refusing to recognise polygamy in the West: a solution or a soundbite?, Open Democracy, 11 July 2016

More than 200 women’s rights campaigners have sent a letter to the Home Secretary raising serious concerns about the government-appointed independent review into Sharia councils in Britain. Maryam Namazie and Mona Siddiqui discuss, BBC Radio 4, 10 July 2016

Polygamy is not a cultural conceit. It is an affront to women, Guardian CiF, 10 July 2016

Sharia courts review branded a ‘whitewash’ over appointment ‘bias’ concerns, Independent, 10 July 2016

Nehru’s niece Nayantara Sahgal joins UK women to protest “discriminatory” review of Sharia courts in Britain, Counterview, 4 July 2016

Whitewashing Sharia councils in the UK? Open Democracy, 4 July 2016

Critics say a UK probe into Sharia courts is a sham, Freethinker, 3 July 2016

Britain probes Sharia courts treatment of women, UPI, 28 June 2016

Britain’s Sharia Courts Under Scrutiny, News Deeply, 24 June 2016

Calls to Dismantle Parallel Legal Systems by women’s rights campaigners on International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2015