In May 2016 Theresa May announced a review into sharia councils. The Homes Affairs Committee followed and announced an enquiry into Sharia Councils in the UK in June 2016.
Sharia is the term for Islamic legal system. The laws are derived from the Koran and fatwas (rulings of legal scholars). Sharia law will vary between different Islamic countries. Sharia councils resolve family matters in accordance with Sharia law principles.
The think tank Civitas estimates there are approximately 85 Sharia Councils in Britain. A Sharia Council can be anything from an organised group attached to a Mosque or an Imam working independently. They are also sometimes incorrectly referred to as “courts”. They have no legal authority in the UK however their decisions may be considered to be religiously binding by many Muslims.
If a Muslim obtains a civil divorce in England & Wales this does not automatically grant them an Islamic divorce. An Islamic divorce is known as a Talaq. For Muslim men this is a simple process of pronouncing ‘I divorce you’ to their wife three times. The duration between each pronouncement varies within scholars and Imams depending on their interpretation. Women however have to apply to a Sharia Council for a decision on whether they should be granted a Talaq. The Sharia councils are therefore used a great deal by Muslim woman.
Muslims who have only had an Islamic marriage in England & Wales are only able to obtain an Islamic divorce. The reason being that Islamic marriages are not recognised in England & Wales unless the marriage took place in another country where it was legally recognised. Sharia councils are therefore the only recourse for divorce for Muslim women who have only had an Islamic marriage.
Sharia councils have faced a lot of criticism for being discriminatory towards women. Concerns have been raised that women have been encouraged to return to abusive husbands and that they have sought to legitimise forced marriages. Some Sharia Councils are considered to be fairer than others however they are not regulated.
The enquiry by the Homes Affairs Committee will therefore assess whether Sharia law is compatible with UK laws and whether it is being used to discriminate against women. The committee will also consider whether there is any role of the government to oversee or monitor Sharia councils.
Elham Manea, Zurich University Associate Professor in Middle Eastern studies in written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee will recommend for a civil marriage to be mandatory at the time of an Islamic marriage. She further suggests that we should adopt the procedure in countries such as Tunisia and Morocco where a religious divorce automatically follows a civil divorce. Such a change would greatly reduce the role of Sharia councils in England & Wales.
We will have to wait and see what further recommendations are made and which are adopted. The Homes Affairs Committee review is due to be completed in 2017.