If you’re a woman and your parents leave behind some money when they die, you’re entitled to exactly half of whatever sum your brother receives. That’s not my opinion: it belongs to the body which represents all solicitors in England and Wales, whose new guidelines on drawing up wills were published recently. If this seems unfair, it could be worse: if you were adopted, the Law Society says you should receive nothing at all. The same goes for any “illegitimate children” – that’s those born to parents who aren’t married, in case you don’t speak Victorian.
But relax. None of this will apply to you – unless, that is, you’re a Muslim. The guidance was published to help solicitors draw up wills that comply with sharia, or Islamic, law.
The Law Society insists this is no big deal. After all, sharia wills are perfectly common: the law places almost no restrictions on how you distribute your assets after you’re gone, so if you want to discriminate against your female relatives – whether for religious reasons or simply out of good old-fashioned misogyny – nobody can stop you. Solicitors are already being asked to draw up sharia-based wills, so this will simply make their lives easier. Anyway the "guidance" is just that: it has no status in law, despite false reports by newspapers last week.
But this isn't the whole story: both practically and symbolically the move undermines the axiom that all British people – male and female; gay and straight; Muslim, Christian and atheist – should be equal under the law. As Charlie Klendijan of the Lawyers’ Secular Society explained to me, “The Law Society’s guidance notes have a special influence and prestige. They’re the recognised benchmark of ‘good practice’ for all solicitors, so they have a major impact on how law is practiced in this country. By publishing this guidance note, it has effectively legitimised sharia in the eyes of the legal world.”
Last year Panorama had to go undercover to show us how Muslim women can face disturbing treatment under sharia, but here it is in black and white – complete with a seal of approval from one of the gatekeepers of the British legal system. The Law Society’s move doesn’t just encourage the spread of such practices, it grants them respectability – in a country that has had a Sex Discrimination Act in place since 1975.
Though it blithely advises its members on how to demean Muslim women, the Law Society is zealous when it comes to protecting other minorities. In 2012 it caused a minor row when it cancelled an anti-gay marriage conference due to take place at its headquarters because, it said, the event clashed with its “diversity policy”.
But our pseudo-liberal creed of "tolerance" - the hypocrisy du jour - authorises the trampling of Muslim women and their rights. Facing protests from outraged secularists this week, the Law Society's president Nicholas Fluck glibly explained that "we live in a multi-faith, multicultural society” and Muslims are entitled to distribute their assets "in accordance with sharia practice”.
But British Muslims aren’t a single culture with a monolithic faith, and it's not up to the Law Society to decide which understanding of "sharia practice" is correct. Instead of producing a neutral description of sharia, it has effectively issued a declamation on behalf of a regressive, reactionary version of Islamic jurisprudence that more liberal-minded Muslims fight bravely against.
For an organisation ostensibly committed to the liberal values enshrined in British law to join the theological fray on the conservative side is a cruel blow to reformist Muslims. (To name just one, Dr Usama Hasan, an astronomer, Islamic scholar and imam, argues there is no necessary conflict between sharia and feminism for those with a less literalistic approach to holy texts than the Law Society.)
What makes the controversy over these guidelines all the more absurd is their utter pointlessness. The Law Society ought simply to remind its members that their job is to provide legal, not religious, advice: clients looking for guidance on what sharia requires should be advised to consult an Islamic authority of their choice.
The nature of British Islam in not fixed: both moderates like Dr Hasan and reactionaries with their flyblown dogma hope to inherit a greater share of its future. The case continues and continues. Meanwhile is it too much to ask of the Law Society to refrain from taking sides?