by LAUREN CODLING
ACADEMICS have criticised a “deeply disappointing” independent review into sharia law released by the government last week.
A number of scholars have claimed the Independent Review into the use of Sharia Law by Sharia Councils in England and Wales review does not offer any solutions to the issues at hand and indeed deters from the actual problem regarding Muslim marriages.
Under existing laws, most minority faith marriages should be registered, meaning that couples who have a religious ceremony have to follow it up with a civil wedding for it to be documented as legally-binding.
Chair of the review, Professor Mona Siddiqui OBE, an Islamic studies expert, said in the review that 90 per of the work of Sharia councils concerned Islamic divorces, primarily sought by women.
Three key recommendations were put forward – to amend the marriage law to ensure that civil marriages are conducted at the same time as the Islamic marriage ceremony; to propose development programmes within communities to raise awareness that Islamic marriages do not afford them the protections under the law that comes with a civil marriage; and a proposal concerning the regulation of Sharia councils.
Dr Vishal Vora, a legal academic and lawyer who specialises in family and contract law and has focused on the legal status of unregistered Muslim marriages in England and Wales, told Eastern Eye he found the review “disappointing” as it did not appear to deal with the issue of unregistered weddings.
Vora said: “[The review] doesn’t seem to look at why they (couples) may not be registering their marriages, which is a deeply complicated issue. The situation needs a bit more examination.”
His suggestion was introducing a celebrant-based marriage to tackle the issue. A celebrant-based system (which is already implemented in Scotland) would mean the wedding would be performed by a person authorised by the government to perform a legal civil service.
“It seems really unfair to put it onto a religious scholar who isn’t interested in the administrative correctness – have professionals if you want to do this.
“The system needs professionalising and that is why the celebrant-system would be useful.”
Vora also described some “discriminating” aspects of the law as they affect some members of society more than others.
He said: “I don’t know if Christian brides would necessarily question if they were definitely following the law… there is a bit of assumption.
“The current discriminatory aspect of the law are some members of our society are being adversely affected more than others.
“I think British Muslim women are being held to a high threshold by the courts with judges saying they should have known the law.
“Does the average person on the street know the marriage law? Probably not.”
Dr Rajnaara Akhtar, a senior lecturer in law at De Montfort University Law School in Leicester, said she viewed the review as “positive in principle” as it enabled a critical understanding of the role fulfilled by Sharia councils and the demands by Muslim women for greater parity in treatment between them and former partners when a marriage came to an end.
However, she said the review did not offer any resolutions. “I do not think the findings offer any tangible solutions to the issue,” she told Eastern Eye on Monday (5).
“[However], the attention being focused on them will, I hope, result in critical introspection and change.”
Akhtar said she believes a solution would lie in reforming the current law to protect those who had only religious marriage ceremonies, and not registered ones.
“A survey of more than 900 women conducted last year demonstrated that only 17 per cent of the entire sample wanted their religious marriage to attract legal recognition,” she said.
“So, while recognition may assist [some women]… it is not something that most Muslim women would support based on that study.
“I think the solution lies in reforming the law for cohabitees and providing some protections for all families who are not legally married, which would also encompass Muslim couples in unregistered marriages.”
Islam Uddin, an Iman and PhD researcher who just completed a study of Islamic divorce in the UK at Middlesex University, claimed although he welcomed the review, he felt the enquiry “detracted” from the real issue.
“In some ways, [the review] is detracting the issue which is a bigger issue than just the Sharia council – why are people having Muslim marriages and why they are having Islamic divorce?” Uddin questioned.
He also felt the review was doing a “disservice” to the Muslim community by not communicating why their religious traditions were important to them.
“The review… [is] trying to show concern, but then take aspects away from the discourse,” he said. “It isn’t asking what sharia law means to people and why Islamic divorce is important.
“It isn’t asking these questions. [It] is treating the population as being victims. That is the wrong angle to go with.”
Vora, who has claimed he put forward a freedom of information request to find out how much the review cost and who exactly was consulted, said he feels now would be a good opportunity for the Asian community to come together and look after its members.
“The community does need to get its house in order,” he said. “An Iman said to me: ‘It is all well and good pointing the finger at the law, but what are we doing as a community? Why aren’t we being more active? We could do a lot more’.”
In response to the review, the Home Office said that they were “grateful” for the analysis but would not be taking forward the recommendation to regulate Sharia councils.
“We will not be taking forward the review’s recommendation to regulate Sharia councils.
“Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws. We will consider carefully the review’s findings and its remaining recommendations.”