Whitewashing Sharia councils in the UK?
In an Open Letter to the UK Home Secretary, hundreds of women’s human rights organisations and campaigners warn against a further slide towards privatised justice and parallel legal systems.
In 2015, the UK government announced that it would hold an independent inquiry into the operation of Sharia Councils in the UK. Predictably, some dismissed the move as yet another example of ‘Muslim bashing’ and ‘Islamophobia’ because it was located within the State’s counter- extremism strategy.
But some of us welcomed the inquiry precisely because it provided a vital and rare opportunity for the state to examine the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and extremism within black and minority communities in the UK, and its impact on gender equality and justice.
For years, many of us have been in the forefront of challenging minority religious fundamentalist and conservative forces, particularly Islamists, who want to legitimate the role of religion in the legal system. We have opposed the slow but insidious drip-drip effect of a fundamentalist agenda that seeks to communalise law and social policy in relation to women and family matters, bearing fruit in developments such as gender segregated seating in universities and the Law Society’s promulgation of ‘Sharia’ compliant legal guidance on inheritance. We have warned against those who tout Sharia or religious personal laws as alternative and ‘authentic’ forms of community mediation and governance: a profoundly regressive idea that has increasingly gained traction in this age of austerity and the state’s retreat from its promise to look after its citizens from the cradle to the grave.
We had hoped and understood that the inquiry into these alarming developments – that are conveniently ignored by some civil rights campaigners who decry state but not fundamentalist abuse of power – would be truly independent. However, we are now dismayed to learn that far from examining the key connections between religious fundamentalism and women’s rights, the narrow remit of the inquiry will render it a whitewash; and instead of human rights experts and campaigners, it is to be chaired and advised by theologians. The danger is that the inquiry is setting out with a pre-determined objective that will approve the expansion of the role of Sharia and religious arbitration forums and their jurisdiction over family matters in minority communities, albeit with a little tweaking to make it more palatable to the state.
Those of us who work with abused and vulnerable women, largely from Muslim and other religious backgrounds, are alarmed by the prospect of a further slide towards privatised justice and parallel legal systems in the UK. We know that in such systems vulnerable women and children will be even more removed from the protection of the rule of law and governance based on secular citizenship and human rights norms. These are norms that we, along with others worldwide, have struggled to establish within formal domestic and international legal systems.
At a time when we are threatened with the loss of the Human Rights Act, our concerns about the make up and terms of reference of the inquiry raise profound issues of constitutionality, legality and democratic accountability. It is for this reason, that an unprecedented number of women and human rights campaigners from across the world have come together to endorse the following open letter to Theresa May, the UK’s Home Secretary.