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The independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales
Admin: "Independent" - Hmmmm......
Over a year ago I was asked by the then Home Secretary to chair an independent review into sharia law, specifically within sharia councils in England and Wales. The review’s terms of reference focused on whether sharia law is being misused or applied in a way that is incompatible with the domestic law in England and Wales, and in particular whether there were discriminatory practices against women who use sharia councils. Over the last two decades there has been an increasing focus on Islam and British Muslims and concern about some of the cultural practices within certain Muslim communities. While Muslim societies are diverse and vary in their lifestyles and attitudes, the rise of extremism is seen as evidence of a lack of social and political integration within many parts of the UK. The observance of sharia loosely translated as Islamic law, but which incorporates various aspects of Muslim life, has also been regarded by some as keeping many Muslims isolated, entrenched and with little social and psychological stake in wider British citizenship and civic life. There are undoubtedly many religio-cultural challenges within some Muslim societies which continue to challenge modern ideals of individual freedom and moral agency, especially relating to women. Women and girls are so often the primary bearers of passing on religious traditions and upholding family honour that their own autonomy and freedoms can be overlooked or denied. These factors often leave them in vulnerable situations. During the course of the review, it soon emerged that religion, culture and gender relations are inextricably intertwined especially when it comes to family matters and personal law. Sharia councils call themselves councils because they deal with aspects of Islamic law. The review was set up because some sharia councils are deemed to be discriminating against women who use their services on matters of marriage and divorce. My colleagues who formed the review panel come from a variety of backgrounds with a wealth of professional experience in family law. Their collegiality and willingness to ask difficult questions have, I hope, made this report honest and intellectually robust. The two imams who acted as advisors gave significant help on matters relating to sharia and the wider communities. As we went through the process of interviews and evidence gathering, it became clear that many Muslim women were seeking help from a diverse range of women’s organisations as well as turning to sharia councils which themselves vary in size and scope. These organisations hold a variety of views about how Muslim women can be helped when facing family and social pressures and given more personal autonomy and agency in their lives. Our fundamental task was to understand why sharia councils exist in the first place and why Muslim men and women, but mainly women, need and use them. I am grateful to everyone who came forward and shared their personal stories. We hope that our recommendations, which result largely from the evidence we heard, can reduce discrimination and offer possible ways forward to help Muslim women gain greater confidence and agency over their lives. Mona Siddiqui, OBE Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies