A Muslim woman who turned to a Sharia Council to be granted a divorce has described the ordeal as one “completely biased towards men”.
Farmida* revealed her experience to the Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK) in a report about marriage and divorce within the faith.
Shaista Gohir, the chair of the group which published the study earlier this year, said women faced multiple barriers when trying to leave an unhappy marriage.
The comments come after Theresa May launched an independent review into the application of Sharia Law in England and Wales last Thursday (26).
It will explore whether, and to what extent, the application of Sharia Law may be incompatible with jurisdiction in England and Wales and how it maybe being misused or exploited. Announcing the investigation, the home secretary said: “A number of women have reportedly been victims of what appears to be discriminatory decisions taken by Sharia Councils, and that is a significant concern.”
Couples who have a Muslim religious ceremony, or Nikha, without a civil marriage do not have their union recognised under UK law and have the same rights as those who have a civil ceremony.
This often leads to women seeking a divorce to turn to Sharia Councils, but they can endure drawn out and sometimes humiliating hearings where they are questioned about “very personal details such as marital rape, anal rape and sexually transmitted infections”, according to the report.
Farmida relied on a Sharia Council to grant her a divorce after her husband was repeatedly violent towards her. She described the process as “intimidating and very frustrating”, and felt she was not being heard.
Farmida said: “I found myself a victim of what I can only describe as a completely sexist procedure and one completely biased towards men.
“Despite providing statements, witnesses and evidence that my ex husband was violent, abusive, shirked all marital responsibilities, whose behaviour was damaging to my children, I was repeatedly asked to reconcile.
“I also had to divulge personal feelings and accounts, and be interrogated by men who had no understanding of the suffering of women or any sympathy with them.
“I had to go through this on several occasions and justify my position to them incessantly. Every time I attended the Shariah Council, I had to retell my story because they had not read any of my statements or police reports.”
Farmida was eventually granted a divorce but added that she suffered from anxiety for months due to the stressful process.
Research from the study stated that “many Shariah Councils and mosques will pressurise women not to divorce. They will further pressure women using religious texts”.
Calls to a helpline set up by MWNUK to provide advice to women on a range of topics exposed that some Muslim marriages were being conducted in Islamic bookshops and a number of new converts to Islam were only having an Islamic marriage.
Gohir told Eastern Eye she welcomed the enquiry by Theresa May. She added: “Unfortunately, as experiences of Muslim women have shown, when they have used the services of Shariah Councils, some receive discriminatory treatment.
“So it is time that the government looked at this issue. Over the longer term, I hope that the government strengthens civil solutions for Muslim women in matters related to marriage and divorce so these women are less reliant on the services of Shariah Councils.”
Lord Ahmad, minister for countering extremism, said the review was carried out to ensure any discriminatory practice, particularly against women which did occur, could be evaluated and the panel would provide a set of recommendations.
“We must stamp out discrimination in any form, in any guise that we see it. You are free to practice and profess your religion, have whatever codes you wish to operate, as long as you do so in the rule of law,” he said. The Conservative peer added it was estimated that there were over 80 Sharia Councils operating in the UK.
The review will be chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, an expert in Islamic and Interreligious studies. She will lead a panel of experts including family law barrister Sam Momtaz, retired high court judge Sir Mark Hedley and Anne Marie Hutchinson QC. It is set to conclude next year with a series of recommendations.
* name has been changed