Last night's viewing - Panorama: Secrets of Britain's Sharia Councils, BBC1; Game of Thrones, Sky Atlantic
There is a good documentary to be made about Britain's Sharia courts and the paradoxes and problems that can arise when two legal systems overlap. Unfortunately, the Panorama film The Secrets of Britain's Sharia Councils wasn't it. Jane Corbin's report turned out to be a muddled affair, fudged and unclear about the difference between a voluntary arbitration system and an institution with legally binding powers.
"In a democracy, you can't have two legal systems... you have to have one law for all," said Baroness Cox, currently pushing a private member's Bill to make it illegal for Sharia councils to set themselves up as courts. Hear, hear to that, but in this democracy, as things stand, we don't have two legal systems. Sharia councils may have a cultural authority. They may also, as Panorama amply demonstrated, have the ability to make life grim for Muslim women. But they have no formal legal power to compel anyone to do anything.
I wouldn't want to suggest that there isn't a problem at all. The filming Panorama had done in Sharia council sessions – both open and covert – suggested an attitude to marriage and divorce that was blinkered, ignorant and even dangerous. The first priority was to prevent divorce (though you might say as much about some entirely secular forms of marriage counselling), and the working assumption appeared to be that it was a woman's job to put things right. "He does hit me," said one woman, asking a Dr Hasan whether she should go to the police. "Severely or just...?" he replied, as if a little light slapping was to be expected in a marriage.
Women were also clearly discouraged from going to the police in cases of physical abuse, with one Sharia counsellor suggesting a woman should ask her husband why he hit her, so that she could "correct" her behaviour. In another case, a woman who'd taken out a restraining order against a violent husband was told to attend the council's hearing in his presence.
It was terrible advice, but, that case aside, it was hard to see how it ran counter to British law, as was suggested at the top of the programme. And while a Sharia marriage looked, on this account, to be a thoroughly raw deal for any woman (men can divorce easily and for free, women have to be given permission and must pay, generally surrendering any claim to joint property in the process), the problem of being compelled to enter one against your will is surely the central issue, rather than subsequent dissatisfaction with the terms of one you've entered willingly.
You'd have to say that Baroness Cox's agenda in this matter is a little ambiguous too. Here she looked like a doughty fighter for feminism. But this is the same Caroline Cox who, in 2002, endorsed a book written by a Nigerian Christian missionary, denouncing multi-culturalism, describing homosexuality as "destructive" and claiming that abortion could be equated with the Holocaust. I'm guessing she wouldn't really care for one good solution to this problem, which would be to make civil marriage the only legally recognised form in Britain and consign everything else to the sphere of spiritual whim.
I watched Game of Thrones with an expert adviser, pausing repeatedly so that I could be updated on the dynastic complexities of the Starks, the Lannisters and the Targaryens and the convolutions of betrayals within betrayals within betrayals. As on previous occasions that I've watched, I got an inkling of why people become so obsessed with it. It is attractively in earnest about its imaginary world without being ludicrously pompous about it, and spells and magic never trump the dark glamour of human psychology. The emancipation of Daenerys' slave army was also genuinely stirring. But I was so exhausted trying to keep up with events that I'm not sure I could survive a whole series.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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