Joan Smith: British women are already suffering from Islamic law

The Archbishop of Canterbury says sharia courts could rule on family issues, but this is exactly where they can cause most harm
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The Independent Online

There are moments when public debate in Britain appears to take place in a vacuum. As the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a convincing impression yesterday of a man suffering the torments of the Inquisition, the debate was moving away from his actual observations about Islamic law, sharia, to the question of his fitness (or otherwise) to hold his office. Rowan Williams claimed that his remarks about the unavoidability of adopting some aspects of sharia in this country had been misunderstood, prompting an interesting response from his critics: the cleric was a brilliant man, they said, but his utterances were simply too opaque for hoi polloi (especially the media) to comprehend. This prompts an obvious question – if no one understands what the Archbishop is saying, how do they know how intelligent he is? – but it also diverted attention from something much more important. Williams's clarification of his remarks seemed to suggest that he wasn't calling for a parallel legal system for Muslims, more a recognition of something that is already happening. Yet there has been a strange reluctance to ask a real expert who has seen the way sharia operates in this country: someone like Rahni Binjie, project manager of Roshni Asian Women's Aid in Nottingham.

Binjie was interviewed in a major study of honour-based crime published by the Centre for Social Cohesion last week, and argued that Islamic leaders are reluctant to grant divorces to women who have children. "This is because the community sees the family structure as being of so much importance," she said. Her colleague Tanisha Jnagel said that the Islamic Sharia Council hears both sides but relies on religious texts to decide whether a divorce should be granted: "In our experience, this isn't going to result in a solution which is fair for the woman." According to the study, Crimes of the Community: Honour-Based Violence in the UK by James Brandon and Salam Hafez, women are being forced to stay in violent marriages as a result. "Many women from the Muslim and Sikh communities report that they have difficulties gaining religious divorces from their respective religious leaders," they say.

This will come as no surprise to Britain's agunot, or "chained women", who have been denied a religious divorce in Orthodox Jewish courts; even if they obtain a civil divorce, they are still married under Jewish law and any children they have with new partners will be mamzer, or illegitimate. Last week an Islamic Council in Leyton, east London, revealed that it had handled more than 7,000 divorces, but did not say what proportion was refused.

As soon as you look at the actual operation of religious law in this country, the picture looks less rosy. Even if the Archbishop didn't have in mind barbaric punishments such as stoning women to death for adultery, there is plenty of evidence that sharia courts are a means of consolidating patriarchal power in societies where Muslim women have begun to demand the same rights as men. The Department for Work and Pensions recently made an astonishing decision to pay state benefits to Muslim men for each of their wives, as long as the marriages were contracted legally abroad. Bigamy is illegal in Britain and the spectacle of the Government colluding in the practice of polygyny – not polygamy, for Muslim women cannot have four husbands – is a signal that ministers are losing their moral compass on the subject of women's rights.

We are only just beginning to realise the extent of violence against women from ethnic minorities. Last week, Commander Steve Allen, who leads for the Association of Chief Police Officers on honour-based violence, gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. Responding to a question about whether forced marriage and "honour" crimes are under-reported in this country, Allen responded with a single word: "Massively". He believes the real level of violence might be 35 times higher than the number of cases (around 500) reported each year to the police and the Foreign Office forced marriage unit.

If a woman is running away from her parents or a violent husband, mosques and sharia courts are not the obvious place for her to turn to get justice. The Centre for Social Cohesion study contains a startling insight into attitudes in one British mosque, reported by Mohamed Baleela, a team leader at the Domestic Violence Intervention Project in Hammersmith, west London. "Last time I talked about marital rape in a mosque," he said, "I nearly got beaten up. Because we said that the law makes it illegal to rape your wife, someone got up and hit me because he was ignorant of the law."

There is an argument, and it is a compelling one, that we should all be subject to the same laws. People who look favourably on a parallel system of religious courts for civil matters claim they do no harm if all parties consent to their use. This, of course, is the crux of the matter: how can we know that women from traditional and religious families have given consent when they are under huge pressure from relatives? They may be threatened into accepting the authority of a religious court, just as hundreds of young women (and some young men) are coerced into getting married against their will.

The few cases that hit the headlines are unbearably tragic: 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed from Warrington, Cheshire, drank bleach when she was confronted with an unwanted suitor in Pakistan, and later disappeared from her parents' home. Her body was found five months later in a river in Cumbria and a coroner ruled last month that the student had been the victim of a "very vile murder".

Another young woman, 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod from south London, was raped and murdered by Kurdish hit men hired by her father and uncle when she left an unhappy, arranged marriage and fell in love with another man. The notion that young women like Shafilea Ahmed and Banaz Mahmod would be helped by an expansion of Islamic law in this country is laughable; indeed the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2003 that sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy and European values. Secular law protects people's right to practise their religion, but it also protects them from aspects of their faith which are unjust and oppressive.

Only someone as out of touch with modern Britain as the Archbishop of Canterbury could possibly think otherwise, or line up so willingly with the forces of reaction. Just because someone looks like an Old Testament prophet, he doesn't have to think and speak like one as well.