Basira

Date: 24 October, 2016
Venue: Committee Room 1, House of Lords
Attendance: Approximately 50 guests

Chaired by Baroness Cox

Baroness Cox read out a statement from Shaista Gohir (OBE), Chair of the Muslim Women’s Network, on Sharia Councils:

We would like to thank Ahlam Akram and Basira for giving us an opportunity to contribute with our perspective.  We thank Basira for recognising that the debate on the issue of Shariah Councils and the treatment of Muslim women, has become polarized and all points of view must be heard.  Both secular and faith based Muslim feminists agree that for too long Shariah Councils have been discriminating against Muslim women.  However, where we differ is in the handling of the discussion and the solutions to this problem.  This is where the debate has become polarized.

“We too at Muslim Women’s Network UK are raising exactly the same concerns and have written the most comprehensive report on this issue, which can be found on our website (www.mwnuk.co.uk) under the resources section and is titled: ‘Information and Guidance on Muslim Marriage and Divorce in Britain.’  However, in our handling of this issue, we are taking into account the voices of Muslim women from across the religious spectrum and not only those who hold secular views. The diversity of Muslim women must be included in this debate. These Muslim women should be at the heart of this debate in also determining the solutions and not just be used for their bad experiences of Shariah Councils.

“If we truly want to help Muslim women then we must all put our agendas to one side and work on solutions that will work for the vast majority of Muslim women and not have solutions imposed on them that they do not want.  After consultation the current consensus amongst Muslim women (including by those who have used Shariah divorce services) is that they at the moment do not want Shariah Councils to be shut down and want them to raise their standards and want accountability. They also want the government to strengthen civil law so that Muslim women are less reliant on Shariah Councils.  This could make Shariah Councils redundant in the future.

For more information: http://www.mwnuk.co.uk




Guest Speaker - Elham Manea, Author of “Women and Sharia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK’ – Notes from her presentation:

I am Yemeni-Swiss and a practising Muslim. There is a rigid and extreme interpretation of Islamic law across the spectrum. One needs to ask what type of laws are they? There is a diversity of Islamic jurisprudence and the way it has been implemented. If we go back to the seventh-tenth centuries, that historical period, they had different morals and things were not as they are today.

The problematic nature of Islamic law is discovered in the question: How is it being implemented? There are differences even in Muslim-Arab countries. Let’s take the example of the need of ‘Guardianship’ of women. This is the concept whereby women are treated as minors and controlled. Usually, guardianship allows a man – father, brother or other male relative - to marry off a virgin girl.

For the Hanafis, there is the concept of ‘kafaa’ that allows a woman to marry herself. However, if her guardian disagrees on some basis, he can stop her. Generally, the guardian must consent to a marriage. There is also the issue of the age of marriage and different opinions about it. Generally, if it is said she is of ‘sound mind’ and adult body, there is no minimum age set out. In the Yemen, a father can marry his daughter at any age. In Tunisia, however, the laws are different.

Looking also at divorce. A man just needs to pronounce the word and he has no need to justify on what basis he is divorcing the woman. Like in Judaism, there is the ‘get’ divorce where a woman can ask for divorce under that system. But the three-time Muslim divorce is irrevocable and a man, if he wants his wife back, has to see her marry someone else first.

In khula too, where a Muslim woman initiates a divorce, she might get it but she has to give up her dowry. We can also look at the subject of ‘obedience’ as well. A Muslim woman is bound to please her husband and he can beat her if she is considered ‘disobedient’.

When we speak of Sharia, there are consequences for Muslim women. However, the laws are different depending on which country. In Yemen, family law is rigid whereas in Tunisia, there is more equality between the sexes and where divorce and marriage have to be done via the civil legal system.

The question is for the UK, if they want to apply Sharia, which family law provisions are they going to implement? The Yemeni type of the Tunisian type? None however are female friendly! It is possible to argue, for example, that puberty is the right age for marriage as it can be argued that in the West girls have sex at a young age also. But, again, we come back to the guardian who has the right to decide whom the girl marries.

There was the case when an imam ordered that for a 30-year-old woman, whose brother-guardian was in Jordan, that a new male guardian-delegate has to be appointed to marry her. But, back again to the kafaa, the guardian is able to override a woman’s personal decision on whom to marry.

The question is which side are you on? To conclude: What Sharia law is to be applied at Sharia Councils? The fundamental type or the open type? In all, Sharia as it stands violates women’s rights. In the Middle East and North Africa world, efforts are being made to modernise the laws and be more secular. So, why is Sharia now relevant in the UK?

 



There was a question asked from the floor by a lawyer: Why should there be two strands of law in the UK?  It was asked why can’t Sharia council judgements be subject to the Human Rights Act?

Elham Manea: We need a common law where there is gender-equality and justice for all. We need to be on the side of British women. The solution is to have civil registration of all marriages and divorce as well as measures to support and protect women. The problem also is how to help the women who are trapped in their communities. We need to educate them so they can be aware of their rights.

Ahlam: The origin of Islamic marriage is a verbal contract. There are lots of loopholes in Sharia as well. We should not have any division between women citizens. Women need the protection of secular law.

 



Guest Speaker: Lesley Abdela, Women’s Rights Activist and Campaigner – Notes from her presentation:

I’ll first thank Ahlam Akram and Basira for inviting me here. I am very much looking forward to hearing the discussion.

I think Ahlam has invited me mainly because for many years I have campaigned here in UK on women’s rights and women’s equality. I may be better known for my years advocating for more women in parliament – I founded the all party 300 GROUP for women in politics here in the UK in the 1980s.

I come from a non-religious background. I became extremely interested in the subject of today’s meeting because over the last 25 years I have spent a great deal of  time working on women’s human rights and women’s empowerment  issues in partnership with local groups in many predominantly Muslim countries. 

The freedom and right to consult a religious body rather than a court of law in civil disputes and personal matters challenges the balance between two fundamental principles of contemporary British society, equality before the law and personal liberty.

In modern British life where all citizens  in law – male and female have equal rights , civil law and religious law sometimes collide – this is especially so in issues related to women’s rights in matrimonial matters and inheritance.

Most of the construction and interpretation of religious laws has been male. There is very often confusion between what is religion and what is cultural tradition.

Regardless of whether it is the Christian, Jewish or Muslim institutions , my personal view is that in the United Kingdom in relation to Gender Equality and discrimination it should be one law for all –  the civil law of the United Kingdom. And that  when it comes to matters of Matrimony, property, inheritance, children, Violence against women, no faith based organisations should be exempt.

Religious individuals have the right to practice their religion however they choose unless there is a British law against it.

As we know well religious organisations continue to discriminate against women in a variety of ways .

There is a  dissonance between women's lives in society at large where, at least in principle, all options are open to them, and their role in Church, Mosque or Synagogue and traditional cultural life which is limited and constrained by laws developed by (male)clergy over the centuries.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 rendered unlawful certain kinds of sex discrimination and discrimination. Included in this act was the requirement that women could not be treated less favourably than men and that men could not be treated less favourably than women. The Act applied to employment and education and established the Equal Opportunities Commission to ensure the law was upheld.

Among the groups exempted from the Sex Discrimination Act were Mineworkers and Ministers of Religion (exclusively men).

Many of you know that the Church of England Movement for the Ordination of Women - long struggle for the right for women to be ordained as Priests and Bishops.  At last these campaigns are beginning to have an impact. 

The  Jewish Reform Synagogue in Britain already has female rabbis.

And now the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance JOFA is campaigning for women to be allowed to be rabbis in the UK in Jewish Orthodox synagogues.

 In the Jewish religion a an example of discrimination which has yet to be overcome is the case of women whose husbands refuse them a religious divorce and who cannot remarry. These women are known as ‘chained’ women.

My last point
So that we go away later feeling incredibly optimistic
I’ll end with positive points

Change can happen….


I have been campaigning for women’s rights since the 1980s, especially for the right of more women to be in Parliament. When we started the all party 300 GROUP Campaign to get women into Parliament there were 19 women out of 635 MPs (just over 3%) . There are now 191 women MPS (just under 30%).

When I worked in an advertising agency, many advertising agencies had a policy of  no female Advertising Account executives.

It wasn’t until 1975 that women presented news on BBC TV. Men at the BBC said viewers would not want to  listen to women’s voices and in any case women could not present news about war.

(The BBC tried a brief experiment 1960 with a women reading the news on TV BBC Audience research concluded that viewers thought a woman reading the late news was "not acceptable")

When you watch BBC TV news today it seems incredible that people ever thought like that.

Let’s hope that not too far in the future some of you will be able to get up and say do you remember those days when women could be absurdly discriminated against in the name  of religious freedom!  



Speaker: Ahlam Akram – Notes from her presentation:

One of the goals for Basira is to create a safe place to discuss women’s right. I have been denied justice and equality in my home country.  As immigrants we love the freedoms this country gave us all. For this reason we need to strengthen secular law that protects all and give us a sense of respect and dignity.

The known fact is that all religions have violated women’s rights, including within certain international human rights provisions, and naturally all clergy will unite to revive their male misinterpretation of God’s law. After women’s fight and in the 21st. Century, are we to accept a theological basis for our laws?

We understand the government situation. Particularly that to ban sharia councils would mean to also ban the courts of the Catholic Church and the Jewish councils. The Arbitration Act of 1996 that gave minorities the rights to practice religion and culture. But, to safeguard our democracy we want to find an acceptable solution that protects women as citizens in this secular democratic framework.

What we don’t’ want is to see is the twisting in the law as has happened in Germany recently when the judge gave a guardianship role to a 13 years old girl cousin, until she reached the age of 16 to marry him.

We do not want to reach the situation of the Arab world where through the subtle manipulation of language, legislators who are by large males, have drafted family laws that are designed to continue the subjugation of women in the society. All of these rulings are  based on if’s and but’s.

Therefore, as women and regardless of our background or religion, must come together with one articulate message to the government, that is to maintain our democracy and  support civil laws. It is the responsibility also of Muslim MPs, to promote within their own constituencies the British laws and to make sure that these laws support British-Muslim women. As I am sure none of these representatives would subject his daughter to any religious law.

We stand by keeping these councils to look into business and commercial disputes, but not in family disputes. We know through research that the origin of marriage and divorce in Islam is verbal, thus we suggest that sharia councils gives this verbally to Muslim women (if they choose sharia) only after presentation of  the civil marriage and divorce certificate. This will help in stopping the practice of polygamy. Most importantly, also, is to strip the councils from any power or authority to implement any other law concerning women and to close and criminalise any council that does not obey the law. 

 



Baroness Cox

We need to look at this from a gender-based viewpoint. There is a parliamentary bill to allow all women to have access to the same rights. We need to protect against domestic violence and to make it illegal for Sharia laws that discriminate against women. We need to also learn from the communities.

Debate Session with Views from the Floor

There is a problem of ignorance and some women don’t know of the laws that can protect them. We need data on the practice of polygamy within Muslim communities as well. We need to protect the dignity of women and have modern legal standards.

A guest lady from the Muslim Women’s Network said for the need of a framework of progress. Islamic law is a contract and women have the right to choose terms. But, how can that be implemented? Would there be a need to campaign to help women make these decisions?

There is an issue of the abuse of those who are vulnerable, especially in cases of polygamy and domestic violence against women. The common law needs to be applied.

Another lady Iman Achara, said she has worked with charities and closed communities. There is a need for funding to have a safe base for women to learn about their rights and a safe place to discuss Sharia and perhaps to come up with best practice for women. It is important to not be politically correct with the police as well, to conduct investigations.

A lady form the Centre of Secular Space mentioned the ‘One law for all’ campaign. They do frontline work with Muslim women and ex-Muslim women too. She was with a guest testimony of a sharia law case.

Another guest mentioned the need for better education and to encourage Muslim women to know their rights. However, it was argued that any Sharia framework or structure is inherent with real consequences! Let religion be a private matter and let the secular laws protect everyone.

Another guest, Aina Khan mentioned her campaign ‘Register our marriage’. Being the head of the Islamic Department, her clients are asking for support especially women under 30. The problem is the ‘non-marriage’ situation, when they don’t register and later have no rights, only those of ‘cohabitees’.

Elham mentioned that in MENA there are lots of activists risking their lives to get women’s freedom and rights. One needs the right to practise religion but not when that religion interferes with women’s human rights.

Islam Uddin said that we need more research and to see what is happening behind closed doors at the grassroots level. There is definitely a problem in education and a problem also of domestic violence in Muslim communities. There is a need to work with women and Sharia itself needs to change.

Another gentleman, a Lord from the floor mentioned FGM. He said there is a law against it but no enforcement and no conviction as yet. There is a need to be careful and not just legislate as we can’t expect enforcement from the community. There are definitely issues when it comes to ‘closed communities’ and practical difficulties.

Finally, it was said by Elham that ‘norms’ can be changed over time. Ahlam also said any change is through empowering women and enforcement of one law that is based on universal human rights and awareness through education..


Notes: Basira Panel Discussion re Sharia Councils (2)

Venue:24th October 2016. Committee Room 1, House of Lords

Chaired by Baroness Cox

Statement from Shaista Gohir, Chair of the Muslim Women’s Network:

The diversity of Muslim women needs to be addresses and for all to put their agendas aside. The consensus: Don’t want to abolish Sharia Councils but they want them to raise their standards and want accountability. They want the government to strengthen civil law so that Muslim women are less reliant on Sharia Councils. This could make them redundant in the future.

Elham Manea

Yemeni-Swiss and a practising Muslim. There is a rigid and extreme interpretation of Islamic law across the spectrum. One needs to ask what type of laws are they? There is a diversity of Islamic jurisprudence and the way it has been implemented. If we go back to the seventh-tenth centuries, that historical period, they had different morals and things were not as they are today.

The problematic nature of Islamic law, as the question becomes: How is it being implemented? There are differences in Muslim-Arab countries. Taking an example in the case of the need for ‘Guardianship’ of women. This is the concept whereby women are treated as minors and controlled.

Guardianship allows a man to marry off a virgin girl. For the Hanafis, the concept of ‘kafaa’ allows a woman to marry herself. However, if her guardian disagrees on some basis, he can stop her.  Generally, the guardian must consent to a marriage. There is also the issue of the age of marriage and different opinions about it. Generally, if it is said she is of ‘sound mind’ and adult body, there is no minimum age set out. In Yemen, a father can marry his daughter at any age. In Tunisia, however, the laws are different.

Looking also at divorce, a  man just needs to pronounce the word and he has no need to justify his basis. In Judaism, also, there is the ‘gett’ where a woman can ask for a divorce under that system. The three-time divorce is irrevocable and a man, if he wants his wife back, she has to marry someone else. Now, in khula too, she might get a divorce but she gives up her dowry.

The subject of ‘obedience’ as well. A Muslim woman is bound to please her husband and he can beat her if she is considered ‘disobedient’.

When we speak of Sharia, there are consequences for Muslim women. However, the laws are different again depending on which country. In Yemen, family law is rigid whereas in Tunisia, there is more equality between the sexes and where divorce and marriage have to be done via the civil legal system.

The question is for the UK, if they want to apply Sharia, which family law provisions are going to be implemented? The Yemeni type of the Tunisian type? None however are female friendly! It is possible to argue that puberty is the right age for marriage when it is argued in the West that girls have sex at a young age also.? But again we come back to the Guardian who has the right to decide whom the girl marries.

There was the case where an imam ordered that a 30-year-old woman, whose brother-guardian was in Jordan, where a new male delegate was chosen to marry her. Back to the kafaa, the guardian can override a woman’s decision.

The question is which side are you on? Conclusion: What Sharia law is to be applied at Sharia Councils? The fundamental type or the open type? In all, Sharia as it stands violates women’s rights. In the Middle East and North Africa world, efforts are being made to modernise the laws and be more secular. So, why Sharia in the UK?

There was a question from the floor asked by a lawyer: What should there be two strands of law in the UK?  It was asked why can’t Sharia councils be subject to the Human Rights Act?

Elham: We need a common law where there is gender-equality and justice to all. We need to be on the side of British women. The solution is to have civil registration of all marriages and divorce as well as measures to support and protect women. The problem also is how to help the women who are trapped in their communities. We need to educate them and for them to be aware of their rights.

Ahlam: The origin of Islamic marriage is a verbal contract. There are lots of loopholes in Sharia as well. We should not have any division between women citizens. Women need the protection of secular law.

Lesley Abdela

Let us look at the situation of women one hundred years ago in the UK. I am a campaigner for women’s rights and have been a part of boots on the across the world including MENA for the past 25 years. I have been working with women’s rights in predominantly Muslim countries. I come a non-religious background. My observation is that civil and religious laws are in conflict.

There is also the question of is it religion or culture? In terms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they are all anti-women and the reason is because these laws were all written by men! There are similarities between them all. My view is that there should be one law for all and yet I appreciate that religious people need to have the right to practise their faith, but there needs to be a limit and one has to respect the laws of the land.

In 1955, we had the Sexual Discrimination Act. This made it illegal to discriminate against women but with the exception to religious frameworks. Within the Church of England there has been a struggle for women too. And even in the Jewish community, reform has been to get more women involved adn to get rid of the ‘shamed’ woman stigma.

I have been campaigning for women’s rights since the 1980s, especially for the right of more women to be in Parliament. When I began work in an advertising agency, there were no female executives. Now we have 31% females in parliament, it was 3% before. Change can happen.

Ahlam Akram

One of the  goal for Basira is to create a safe place to discuss women’s right. I have been denied justice and equality  in my home country.  As immigrants we love the freedoms this country gave us all.  For this reason we need to strengthen  secular law that protects all and give us a sense of respect to our dignity.

The known fact is that all religions violated women’s rights including the international human rights provisions, and naturally all clergies will unite to revive their male misinterpretation  of God’s law. After our fight and in the 21st. century are we to accept theological basis for our laws??

We understand the government situation. Particularly that banning sharia councils would mean to also ban the courts of Catholic Church and the Jewish councils.

The arbitration act of 1996 that gave minorities the rights to practice  religion and culture.. BUT,  to safeguard our democracy we want to find an acceptable solution that protect women as citizens in our democracy.

What we don’t’ want is to see, twists in the law as it happened in Germany when the judge gave Guardianship role to a 13 years old girl cousin,   till she reach  the age of 16 to marry him. 

We do not want to reach the  situation of the Arab world where ‘’ through the subtle manipulation of language, legislators who are by large male dominated- have drafted family laws that are designed to continue the subjugation of women in the society. ’all of these rulings are  based on IF & BUT ???

Therefore, as women  and regardless of our background or religion,  Must come together with one articulate message to the government ,  that maintain our democracy and  support our laws.

It is the responsibility of Muslim MPsTo promote within their own constituencies  the  British laws, and  to make sure that these laws  support British-Muslim women.  As I am sure non of these representatives would subject his daughter to any religious law.

Yes we stand by keeping these councils to look into business and commercial disputes , but We know through research that the origin of  marriage and divorce in Islam is verbal,  thus we suggest that sharia councils gives this verbally  to Muslim women (if they choose sharia ) after presentation of  the civil marriage and divorce certificate. This will help in stopping the practice of polygamy. 

Most important is  to strip the councils  from any power or authority to implement  any other law concerning women?

And close and criminalise any council that does not obey the law. 

Baroness Cox

We need to look at this from a gender-based viewpoint.  There is a parliamentary bill to allow all women to have access to the same rights. We need to protect against domestic violence and to make it illegal for Sharia laws that discriminate against women. We need to also learn from the communities.

Debate Session with Views from the Floor

There is a problem of ignorance and some women don’t know of the laws that can protect them. We need data on the practice of polygamy within Muslim communities as well. We need to protect the dignity of women and have modern legal standards.

A guest lady from the Muslim Women’s Network said for the need of a framework of progress. Islamic law is a contract and women have the right to choose terms. But, how can that be implemented? Would there be a need to campaign to help women make these decisions?

There is an issue of the abuse of those who are vulnerable, especially in cases of polygamy and domestic violence against women. The common law needs to be applied.

Another lady Iman Achara, said she has worked with charities and closed communities. There is a need for funding to have a safe base for women to learn about their rights and a safe place to discuss Sharia and perhaps to come up with best practice for women. It is important to not be politically correct with the police as well, to conduct investigations.

A lady form the Centre of Secular Space mentioned the ‘One law for all’ campaign. They do frontline work with Muslim women and ex-Muslim women too. She was with a guest testimony of a sharia law case.

Another guest mentioned the need for better education and to encourage Muslim women to know their rights. However, it was argued that any Sharia framework or structure is inherent with real consequences! Let religion be a private matter and let the secular laws protect everyone.

Another guest, Aina Khan mentioned her campaign ‘Register our marriage’. Being the head of the Islamic Department, her clients are asking for support especially women under 30. The problem is the ‘non-marriage’ situation, when they don’t register and later have no rights, only those of ‘cohabitees’.

Elham mentioned that in MENA there are lots of activists risking their lives to get women’s freedom and rights. One needs the right to practise religion but not when that religion interferes with women’s human rights.

Islam Uddin said that we need more research and to see what is happening behind closed doors at the grassroots level. There is definitely a problem in education and a problem also of domestic violence in Muslim communities. There is a need to work with women and Sharia itself needs to change.

Another gentleman, a Lord from the floor mentioned FGM.  He said there is a law against it but no enforcement and no conviction as yet.  There is a need to be careful and not just legislate as we can’t expect enforcement from the community. There are definitely issues when it comes to ‘closed communities’ and practical difficulties.

Finally, it was said by Elham that ‘norms’ can be changed over time. Ahlam also said any change is through  empowering women and enforcement of One law that is based on Universal human rights and awareness through education.