“We cannot continue with the present situation in which so many women are suffering in ways that would make the heroines of the suffragette movement turn in their graves.”- Baroness Cox
Last week I was invited to The House of Lords in UK by Baroness Caroline Cox to speak about Honor Based Violence and Sharia Courts in UK.
Baroness Cox’s Private Member’s Bill has been reintroduced into the House of Lords. The Bill – called the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill – seeks to address two interrelated issues: the suffering of women oppressed by religiously-sanctioned gender discrimination in the UK today; and a rapidly developing alternative quasi-legal system which undermines the fundamental principle of ‘one law for all’.
In an effort to increase support of the Bill, a new website has been launched by the not-for-profit organization Equal and Free Ltd. (http://equalandfree.org)
The work Baroness Cox is doing comes at a critical time in UK history where almost 100 Sharia courts exist, sanctioned by the government. As stories of abuse and misuse are emerging, many women are concerned about the future. Baroness Cox herself is an untiring advocate for the cause of women but has run up against red tape and some resistance.
I was invited to speak about the Canadian experience in Ontario when the notion of implementing sharia courts was defeated, as well as honor based violence.
The first session was attended by interested and supportive members of Parliament including Fiona Bruce MP, Lord Green of Deddington, Lord West, Viscount Bridgeman.
Lord Dholakia, Lord Elton and Lord Tebbit.
After I presented the story of the Ontario sharia debate, there were many questions about what can be done in UK. The situation in UK is precarious because the Sharia Councils are deeply embedded in the communities.
How did this happen and what are the results?
In her book Women and Sharia Law, a brilliant expose of the problem, Professor Elham Manea explores this question by building on her knowledge of legal pluralism in Middle Eastern and Islamic countries and by first-hand analysis of the Islamic shari’a councils and Muslim arbitration tribunals in various British cities. Women and Shari’a Law traces how support for legal pluralism evolved in the context of widespread racism and anti-immigrant sentiments leading up to the Race Relations Act of 1968. Through its focus on gender equality and women’s experiences, the book argues that the desire to resolve conflict, accommodate Muslim minorities, and reform a Euro-American-centric legal system developed into ‘The Essentialist Paradigm’. This is a post-colonial and post-modern discourse that treats people as ‘homogenous groups’, essentialising their cultures and religions, but disregarding individual and authentic voices. By meeting with the leading sheikhs―including the only women on their panels―as well as interviewing experts on extremism, lawyers, politicians and activists in civil society and women’s rights groups, the author offers a critique of legal pluralism, connecting it with political Islam and detailing the lived experiences of women in Muslim communities.
Most of the MP’s have been sent a copy of Manea’s book but the question on everyone’s mind is how to deal with the current issue at hand.
We heard from victims who are suffering because they were forced into a religious marriage with little or no information that they needed to register a civil marriage. After an abusive marriage when they want a divorce, they are in limbo because there is no record of a civil marriage and the religious leader refuses to acknowledge the marriage ever took place because he would be admitting to an offence. There are thousands of Muslim women caught up in this net of deceit and pressure.
In one case of polygamy, when the victim went to social services, they were told “you are Muslim so you should accept this!” Law enforcement will not intervene in many cases of abuse because they have been told not to meddle with the community.
These women are pleading for help.
After another meeting with Peers later that week as well as an in-depth meeting with organizations supporting women’s rights including Muslim Women’s Advisory Council and One Law For All, they came up with some ideas.
• While the law needs to be tweaked to change/revoke the bill that allows for a parallel set of laws, some urgent actions need to be put into place.
• The religious leaders need to be held accountable for all marriages they perform
• Public Service Messages in different languages need to be announced letting women know they have options
• Law enforcement needs to be trained to do the job without being politically correct
• Most importantly the government needs to take note and make this a priority
GROOMING AND SEX CRIMES
A separate event I attended was a conference hosted by MARIAS – Mothers Against Radical Islam and Sharia. This is run by Toni Bugle who was raped when she was a young girl and now she dedicates her life to mentoring and helping those who are facing similar issues and to help them tell their stories.
At this conference I heard the depressing and compelling stories of two women of Pakistani heritage who were victims of the Sharia courts and one white girl who had been groomed, raped and trafficked. I could not sleep that night. The sad part of their testimony is that neither mainstream law enforcement nor their own people did anything to help.
The Pakistani girl told me that in small, tight and (still tribal) communities of Muslim migrants in UK, if a girl decides to show independence or modernity, she is shunned by the community and treated as a loose, fast woman who can be used and abused. This story was heard over and over so these girls are caught between their own communities and the mainstream who have no desire to intervene.
Two days later there was a report in The Times about a Pakistani gang guilty of sex crimes. It referred to The Jay Report published by Alexis Jay in 2014 which validates stories of the victims. http://www.rotherham.gov.uk/downloads/file/1407/independent_inquiry_cse_in_rotherham
There is a lot that needs to be done at many levels. But the mandate of Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow i.e. Expose, Educate and Eradicate was much appreciated by the attendees and at least the first part is being addressed. I am humbled and excited to be part of making the world a better place for women.