Muslim Council of Britain rejects Baroness Caroline Cox's claim that British Muslim men have 'up to 20 children'

The response follows Baroness Caroline Cox's suggestion that Muslim women are being discriminated against in their local communities

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The Muslim Council of Britain has rejected claims by a peer that men in some UK communities are living in polygamous societies where they father up to 20 children. 

Speaking in the House of Lords on Friday, Baroness Caroline Cox said loopholes in equality legislation had led to the emergence of Sharia councils as an alternative "quasi-legal system", which she said meant women were "oppressed by religiously sanctioned gender discrimination in this country".

"The rights of Muslim women and the law of our land must be upheld," she said. "Muslim friends tell me that in some communities with high polygamy and divorce rates, men may have up to 20 children each."

Lady Cox said the behaviour of men was creating "dysfunctional families" and leading to discrimination against women who are not aware of their rights.

But Harun Khan, a spokesman for the MCB, told The Independent: "There are non-Muslim families in the UK that have lots of children so it's just pandering to that view that Muslims are different they are not really part of our society and they need to be dealt with."

Mr Khan said Islamic law had to be considered "in context" and it was not as simple as men being allowed to be polygamous.

He explained: "Its not 'you can have four wives and there you go'. It's a huge responsbility, it's about being just and fair. You can only have four wives if you can be just and fair to each of them." 

But Lady Cox said men were using the system of "halala", whereby a husband can divorce his wife by saying "I divorce you" three times. 

If the man wishes to remarry his wife, she must marry and divorce another man first. 

Lady Cox said Sharia councils, even when operating under the terms of the Equality Act, were found to be practicing sex discrimination; giving custody of children almost exclusively to the father, allowing men to marry up to four wives and allowing inheritance law which means women are entitled to only half of the legacy left to their male relatives. 

She said there was also evidence they were stepping outside their remits and deciding on criminal cases surrounding domestic violence and grievous bodily harm.

Muslim women were being forced by Sharia councils to return to abusive husbands because they say "a husband has a right to 'chastise'" his wife, she claimed.

But Mr Khan insisted Sharia councils were "in essence arbitration panels" similar to those that exist within other faiths, such as the Beth Din courts in Judaism. He stressed they were "entirely voluntary" and "no one is really forced to do anything".

Baroness Cox said many women were not aware of their legal rights

He said Sharia councils recommended women go to the police in cases of domestic violence.

Lady Cox's speech was in support of a bill she first introduced to the house in 2012 to re-enforce gender-equality measures in the Equality Act 2010, so women have more rights at religious arbitration panels.

She highlighted the case reported to her by a doctor who said a 63-year-old man asked him to repair the hymen of his 23-year-old wife so he can divorce her and force her to remarry a man in Pakistan to obtain a visa in exchange for a payment of £10,000.

She claimed the Pakistani man "would probably abuse and then divorce his wife and marry another or more wives here."

According to Lady Cox, the doctor said the man became "intensely angry" when he refused to perform the illegal operation, and said other doctors in the town frequently carried out the operation under another name. 

She said the problem was excerbated by authorities' reluctance to intervene.

"In many cases, women have suffered further difficulties because police, civil authorities and professional personnel have been reluctant to take action that might be deemed to give offence to the leaders of these communities," she said.

Lady Cox attracted controversy in 2009 when she and Ukip peer Lord Malcolm Pearson invited far-right Dutch politican Geert Wilder to the House of Lords to show anti-radical Islam film Fitna. 

When then-Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith blocked Mr Wilder's entry to the UK, Lady Cox and Lord Pearson accused the government of pandering to militant Islam.