Sharia and the Archbishop

Argus title : Islamic law is incompatible with our rights

Over the past few weeks, 1000s of people have registered their disapproval of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks suggesting a formal acceptance of Sharia Law. In a collective howl of outrage, they have emailed and written to newspapers, telephoned radio stations and posted comments on television and newspaper websites. The government has spoken out against him as have opposition parties. Bishops here and abroad have castigated him. The level of disagreement has been almost overwhelming.

Many clergy and some journalists have argued that the Archbishop was misunderstood, that he is a scholar whose carefully argued text has been plundered by crude media hounds and bigots who took no time to understand it.

The Archbishop has taken responsibility for what he calls “unclarity” within the speech, but has not apologised. He continues to believe that he has been misunderstood. I was one of those outraged by the Archbishop’s comments. As a woman and the mother of a daughter, I felt utterly betrayed.

Wading through the Archbishop’s opaque and occasionally tortured prose is difficult, but the key point is clear. He wants an accommodation with Sharia Courts. Far from recognising the danger that they pose, he insists that formalising them and offering them “additional resource” (presumably paid for via income tax) would help them to operate better and thus increase “community cohesion”.

The Archbishop and his supporters suggest that non-Muslims should not interfere in what they say are essentially Islamic matters of dispute in family matters, but this is arrant nonsense,
Human rights are universal. The formalisation of any law which suggests that women are subordinate to men – and Sharia Law does – threatens every woman and girl in the land and undermines women’s struggle for equal rights. It is no accident that the European Court of Human Rights has declared Sharia Law to be incompatible with democracy.

Clearly anticipating dissent on this issue, Dr Williams suggests that women’s situation could actually be improved by the formalisation of such religious courts. He seems naively unaware that conservative Wahabism is rapidly gaining ground in the UK’s Islamic community and that therefore the limited freedoms Muslim women have gained are being fast eroded.

With astonishing naivety he hints that “cultural” abuses such as forced marriage – which are not condoned by the Koran – could be combated by such courts, precisely because they are rooted in religion. He seems to have lost sight of the fact that the informal Sharia Courts that do exist have all too frequently been used to control women and limit their options.

Taj Hargey, a historian and Islamic theologian, who runs the Muslim Education Centre in Oxford and is a trustee of British Muslims For Secular Democracy says: “Sharia is nothing but a human concoction of medieval religious opinion, largely archaic and outmoded and irrelevant to life today. Most sharia contradicts the letter and spirit of the Koran….”

Dr Shaz Mahboob, warned “Any introduction of sharia law would almost certainly lead to the curtailment of women’s rights in cases such as inheritance, reducing their share to less than half of what a male heir would expect. Similarly the testimony of a woman would be valued at half of that of a man in a sharia court. Modern forensic evidence, DNA technology and CCTV footage would be deemed inadmissible, should a case of alleged adultery be under trial; instead, the court would have to rely solely on the testimony of four credible male witnesses.”

The Muslim journalist Yasmin Alibhai Brown warns of the effect of Wahabism saying “There is no agreed body of sharia, it is all drafted by males and the most cruel is now claiming absolute authority.”

Under traditional Islamic law polygamy is condoned, allowing men up to four wives and the primary right to divorce. A man may marry a second wife, against the objections of the first, denying her a divorce. In such circumstances, a British law court would accept her right to divorce. A Sharia court would not.

The Archbishop is right to point out that the present unofficial system causes confusion. Islamic marriages performed in this country are not recognized unless registered separately with the civil authorities. The result can be that some women think they are divorced or protected by family law when they are not. However, the answer in such cases is not to strengthen the discriminatory sharia system, but to ensure that women have access to independent legal advice and accurate information. In addition, those who don’t speak English (overwhelmingly women) should have access to genuinely independent interpreters and free lessons in English.

Yasmin Alibhai Brown pours scorn on the idea that sharia will help women deal with “family problems”, saying “Many will be sent back to bastard husbands or flinty-eyed mullahs will take their children away. In Bradford and Halifax, they may be forbidden to drive or work where men are employed. Adultery will be punished. I don’t think we will have public stonings but violence of some sort will be meted out (it already is) with lawmakers’ backing.”

The British government does little enough to support Muslim women. A few days before the Archbishop’s speech, the government reported that, after a year long review, it had decided it would accept the right of polygamous husbands to claim benefit for multiple spouses. Scandalously, it also agreed that such benefit could be paid into the husband’s bank account, not to the relevant women. In such circumstances, the man concerned would have no incentive to free first wives, who might never know that they have a legal right to an independent life and income.

According to Asian women’s organizations domestic violence, forced marriage and so called honour killing are increasing. According to official figures, 10 to 12 women are murdered in Britain in honour killings each year, but this is likely to be a serious underestimate.

The mental health charity MIND has reported that the suicide rate of 16-24 year old Asian women is three times that of 16-24 year old women of white British origin. In contrast, young Asian men are far less vulnerable to suicide than their White counterparts. MIND reports “ Asian women’s groups have linked the high suicide rates amongst young Asian women to cultural pressures; conservative parental values and traditions such as arranged marriages may clash with the wishes and expectations of young women themselves.”

Hannana Siddiqui of the women’s rights organisation, Southall Black Sisters, commented: “The high instance of Asian women suicides is linked to abusive practices within Asian families. There is a correlation between these suicides and violence in homes. Psychiatric research has shown there are rarely cases of mental disorders in these cases….”

Muslim playwright Yasmin Whittaker Khan said: “They feel there’s no other way of escaping problems such as adultery, domestic violence and alcoholism.”

A recent report by the Centre for Social Cohesion claims the problem of forced marriage is no longer an issue of first-generation migrants importing attitudes from countries of origin, but is “indigenous and self-perpetuating”.

The Report revealed shocking cases of abuse including that of a teenage girl brought into Britain to marry a 40 year old man and subsequently prostituted by his family. In this case, the girl’s marriage was not recognised by the Home Office, but was approved by the Islamic Sharia Council in Britain.

The report echoes the experience of women’s organisations which observe widespread agency indifference and community collusion in the matter of forced marriage. The report criticises police and other agencies for failing to take action in a misguided attempt to avoid offending cultural sensibilities.

Not long before the Archbishop’s speech, an Asian women’s organisation called Karma Nirvana complained to the government that schools in Derby were refusing to display warning posters produced by the Home Office’s Forced Marriage Unit – on the grounds that they would offend local families.

In such an environment, in which women are so significantly disempowered, it is a simple nonsense to suggest they could make free and informed choices about which legal system they use. Sharia will be forced upon them.

Yasmin Alibhai Brown said bitterly “What (the Archbishop) did…. was to convince other Britons….. that Muslims want not equality but exceptionalism and their own domains. Enlightened British Muslims quail. Friends like this churchman do us more harm than our many enemies. He passes round what he believes to be the benign libation of tolerance. It is laced with arsenic.”

Dr Williams would do well to reflect on these words and, for a time, keep silence.

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