Are Sharia councils harming women?

The BBC’s Panorama asks, are Sharia councils harming women? It includes a bit of undercover video in which a guy sitting high up as if he were a judge gives a woman a lot of very bad advice. He tells her she should be “brave” and ask the husband who hits her why he does it. “Is it my cooking?” That way she can correct herself.

He also tells her that reporting the hitting to the police is the very last resort and that a shelter is terrible.

In a small terraced house in east London, a woman and her husband argue before an Islamic scholar who sits on a dais above them in a room that looks and feels like a court.

This is Leyton Islamic Sharia Council, and Dr Suhaib Hasan will decide if the woman can have a divorce. Her husband is refusing to grant her one and the couple have been coming here for a year.

She accuses him of refusing to work, ignoring the children and verbally abusing her. He vehemently denies it. When Dr Hasan orders the husband to leave the room, the woman breaks down in tears.

“I hate him, I can’t even bear to look at him, he has ruined my life,” she sobs.

Dr Hasan sends the couple away for another month to try to save their marriage, with the help of Allah.

Allah hadn’t helped before that point, so why would Allah help now?

The BBC article itself is somewhat confusing.

Leyton Islamic Sharia Council is Britain’s oldest Islamic council and one of the most active, hearing about 50 cases a month – mainly marital disputes. Nine out of 10 are brought by Muslim women from all over the country.

With an Islamic marriage, it is far easier for a man to divorce. The only way for women is through these councils.

“We are not here just to issue divorces,” says Dr Hasan.

“We want to mediate first. We try to save marriages so when people come to us we try to reconcile them.”

But Islamic rulings given here are not always in the interests of the women concerned, and can run counter to British law.

That statement “the only way for women is through these councils” is very confusing to me. Surely that’s simply false, because women can get divorces through the legal system…unless of course they are being forcibly prevented, but surely that would be against the law.

Maybe the Beeb means “the only way for women who are determined to have only an Islamic divorce from an Islamic marriage is through these councils”?

Or maybe it means something more sinister, something like “the only way for women who are trapped in these Islamic marriages and don’t know how to get a secular divorce is through these councils.” If that is what they mean I think they should have spelled it out.

As it is, it’s not clear to me why these women who get such horrible instructions from these Sharia councils don’t just decide the hell with Sharia councils and go the secular route instead.

In Leeds I met Sonia, a woman who suffered extreme violence from her husband, who punched and kicked her and threw her down the stairs. He also hit their son. When Sonia got a civil divorce, the courts would allow him only indirect access to the children.

Sharia courts are not allowed to interfere in child access matters, but when Sonia went to Leyton Islamic Sharia Council for a Sharia divorce, they told her she would have to give the children up to her husband.

“I couldn’t bear the thought of such a violent person having my children,” said Sonia.

“What was shocking was when I explained to them why he shouldn’t have that access to the children, their reaction was – well, you can’t go against what Islam says.”

Sonia stood her ground and eventually got Leyton Islamic Sharia Council to drop their demand.

That’s good, but much better would be to ignore Leyton Islamic Sharia Council altogether.

I met another woman who had tried to get a divorce from a different Sharia council in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.

Ayesha’s husband was in prison for violence, but Dewsbury Sharia Council told her she would have to go to mediation with him.

“I said I can’t do that because he’s not even allowed near my house and because I am frightened, I can’t face him… but they didn’t take any notice,” she said.

Eventually Dewsbury Sharia Council agreed to see her without her husband but she had to face five men alone without legal representation. It took her two years to get a Sharia divorce.

God hates women.


  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    As it is, it’s not clear to me why these women who get such horrible instructions from these Sharia councils don’t just decide the hell with Sharia councils and go the secular route instead.

    I’m really glad for your writing on this topic, but the above sentence surprises me. Surely when you hear people ask why women stay in abusive relationships you have an answer, right? And so why is it so confusing why they would stay in an abusive community?

    I see the situations as quite parallel. There have been cases (fortunately not in the last 10 or 12 years) in my local queer women’s community where one woman alleging abuse was pressured by the queer women around her to publicly apologize for the accusation b/c nothing one lesbian can do to another would be anything like the abuse some heterosexual men can inflict on some heterosexual women. One succumbed to the pressure, then moved away 6 months later, a miserable wreck the whole time. The other tried to stay and be part of the community and spent at least 3 years facing people who would publicly turn their backs to her to shame her. But she never left. Where would she go? She had no faith that queer women’s community elsewhere would be more understanding of woman on women DV. The straight world wasn’t going to provide her any validation and/or support – much less opportunities for long term love and connection that she craved.

    Anyway, it doesn’t seem surprising to me at all – it’s rather more surprising that you would say that you’re “not clear” about why a woman would continue to work within the community.

  2. says

    I think this is the part where ideas like “cultural sensitivity” and “Western cultural imperialism” come in, right? Like Crip Dyke says, it isn’t at all surprising that people within a culture don’t easily see solutions that don’t fit inside their culture. “Why don’t they just…” questions are often an expression of unrecognized privilege, aren’t they?

  3. says

    I meant it’s not clear to me, the way the Beeb worded that story.

    And it’s not just self-evident that women can’t ignore Sharia councils while still continuing “to work within the community.” It’s not self-evident that it’s universally required (socially required, culturally required, required by “the community”) that divorce go through Sharia councils. None of it’s self-evident.

    But that’s all I meant. Not that I don’t understand why community pressure is community pressure, but that the BBC skipped over all that and also didn’t even mention the possibility of ignoring sharia councils altogether.

  4. says

    but that the BBC skipped over all that and also didn’t even mention the possibility of ignoring sharia councils altogether.

    “Cultural sensitivity” no doubt. To the point of post-modernism.

  5. coelsblog says

    Surely that’s simply false, because women can get divorces through the legal system …

    Yes, you are right. These “courts” are entirely optional and voluntary — except of course for social pressure. In any civil issue British law allows two parties to appoint an arbitrator of their choice to rule on any dispute, thus avoiding going to the courts, and this seems fine so long as both parties voluntarily accept this method.

    For example, disputes within the Jewish community have for a long time sometimes been settled this way, with a religious arbitrator appointed, and no-one objected to this. It’s only recently that Sharia courts have been set up for such purposes, and of course this is leading to lots of controversy.

    Thus any woman is legally 100% free to take her case to the secular civil courts. However, social pressure might make that problematic. And, further, if the woman is a devout Muslim she may genuinely feel that going to the Sharia courts is the right thing to do, and thus she might choose that voluntarily, despite the fact that Sharia courts are heavily unfair to women.

  6. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Perhaps Muslimahs against Femen would approve of us “listening” to these women? They’ll be right there, working to get these trapped women out of this nightmare, and not saying it’s imperialist for British doco crews to show what’s going on?

  7. Maureen Brian says

    As far as I know, a proportion of Muslim women in the UK do not have a civil marriage which can be dissolved by the courts. In some cases they married in a Muslim majority country where their religious marriage is the legally recognised form. So they can come in as legitimate wives if they were not born / brought up here. Thing is, the only way for a woman to get out of that religious marriage is to persuade old Dr Hasan on his dais.

    In other cases, women have come into the country as intended brides but still have only had the religious marriage at home, with the family taking care not to tell them the law here is different and that the civil marriage would offer them rights and protections which the religious marriage does not. What! Rights and protections for women?

    In a very few cases women brought up here and with more idea about the law are strong-armed into the religious marriage first and the civil marriage they are promised “later, dear” never actually happens.

    So we have a number, probably a huge number but no-one has counted them of womem living in 21st century Britain who are just plain trapped.

    What we need are a couple of scandals, a major political row and a two or three test cases under the Human Rights Act but the most conservative elements are making damn sure that none of this happens.

    (If I’ve got this wrong then someone will say so but that’s as I understand it.)

    With Jewish women seeking a religious divorce in addition to their civil one the courts will eventually act but it is a long, drawn-out procedure which a stubborn husband can hold up for many years.

  8. Ant (@antallan) says

    I don’t know if you’re right, Maureen, but the situation you describe seems awfully plausible.

    Ophelia: So,what was Panorama’s answer to the titular question?


  9. Anne Marie Waters says

    Ophelia, I will be writing to our domestic violence charities and campaigns tomorrow to ask if One Law for All can assist with the campaigns they will now (inevitably) launch against sharia tribunals in Britain. I will let you know how I get on. (Note however that the holding of one’s breath is not advisable).

    Suhaib Hasan, who features in the BBC snippet, is the same Suhaib Hasan who advocates stoning; he claims that stoning will “turn Britain in to a haven of peace”. He also awaits the day when Islam will dominate Britain (“a political dominance”). If you haven’t already seen ‘Undercover Mosque’, please do.

    You will also have noted no doubt the ‘does he leave bruises when he hits you’? question. This is in line with sharia thinking that a man has every right to hit his wife provided he leaves no marks. As was argued by the “moderate” Muslims Maryam and I debated at UCL.

    Thanks for highlighting all of this.

  10. freemage says

    A possible moderate response to this situation (note–my personal response would not be moderate, but sometimes you have to push forward in steps)–continue to permit the Sharia (and other specialist) courts, but require a kind of boilerplate announcement near the beginning of the process (possibly even away from the spouse) which makes it clear that the process is voluntary, and that a legal separation and divorce is permitted through the secular courts.

  11. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @ Ophelia –

    Thanks for the clarification. I was genuinely confused b/c I dont’ think that you don’t get that kind of thing. I was all, bwuh???

    I get it now.

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