My Lords, the Government are grateful for the independent review team’s analysis and comprehensive report. The review found evidence of a range of practices across sharia councils, including women being forced to make concessions to gain a divorce. This is not acceptable. The Government responded to the review’s recommendations in a Written Ministerial Statement on 1 February 2018 and in the Integrated Communities Strategy.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her sympathetic reply and welcome the Government’s response to the sharia law review, which reflects the measures in my Private Member’s Bill which would require all religious marriages to be legally registered, thereby eradicating the vulnerability of Muslim women in the application of sharia law in this country, whereby a man can divorce his wife merely by saying “I divorce you” three times, and there is widespread polygamy, causing great unhappiness. One Muslim lady told me, “I feel betrayed by Britain. I came here to get away from this, and it’s worse here than in the country from which I came”. Therefore, I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government will make it a priority to respond urgently with appropriate legislation, because many Muslim women are suffering in this country in ways which would make our suffragettes turn in their graves.
I share the concerns of the noble Baroness and those raised in the review that some couples may marry in a way that does not give them the legal protections available to others in a civilly registered marriage. We have committed to explore the legal and practical challenges relating to marriage reform, and the Ministry of Justice will be taking this work forward.
My Lords, in my experience, at the heart of conciliation, arbitration and mediation, consent is crucial. There are now widespread concerns regarding the nature of consent given prior to sharia council hearings. Women may be pressured by their families into going to these councils and may lack knowledge of both the English language and their rights under English law. Does the Minister agree that this is an issue of equal rights for women? May I press her on how the Government will ensure the rights of Muslim women and ensure that the rule of law is upheld?
I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. As I have already stated, the Government are taking this issue very seriously and we will be undertaking further work to look at how sharia councils and sharia law work. People can abide by sharia principles if they wish. Individuals are free to go to their priest, imam or any other faith leader, but we want to ensure that these actions do not conflict with the law and people are not left vulnerable and discriminated against.
In assessing the scale of this problem, do Her Majesty’s Government take into account the, I believe, considerable number of people living in closed communities who are under severe pressure, social and otherwise, not to tarnish a family’s honour by going to British law and who may not even speak the English language? They are not likely to show on the radar or to give evidence to inquiries. This problem seems to me bigger and more urgent than Her Majesty’s Government are giving it credit for.
My Lords, the review that was undertaken recognised that there was an issue and made three recommendations: one was to look at marriage law reform; the second was on raising awareness; the third was to look at regulating sharia councils. I say to my noble friend that other women who go to sharia law have a need to go there because they feel it is necessary. At the same time, we have to raise much more awareness about them going to have their marriage registered civilly.
My Lords, I have spoken on this subject at every opportunity in your Lordships’ House. It is really appalling that we have an Equality and Human Rights Commission, but Muslim women have no equality and no human rights. It is really time to get into this issue properly. We have to look at the whole question of sharia. All the scholars have accepted that sharia discriminates against women not just in marriage or divorce but in every respect. A man can get a divorce by walking in—
My Lords, the Government do take this issue very seriously, and that is why we undertook a review. The review’s findings were put in place on 1 February and a Ministerial Statement was made. However, we must ensure that reform of marriage is not done in a piecemeal fashion because it is a complex area of legislation. We are looking at that area carefully and, as I said, within the communities we are putting much greater effort into working with other organisations such as advice centres, voluntary organisations and NGOs to raise much greater awareness so that these issues can be tackled.
My Lords, the report says that,
“those proposing a ban on sharia councils provide no counter proposal or any solution for anyone seeking a religious divorce … We consider the closure of sharia councils is not a viable option”.
Do the Government agree?
Sharia councils provide a service for some of the women who need to go to them, but they are not a viable solution in terms of equality for those women. We are therefore trying to raise awareness among sharia councils and the women who go to them—90% of the work done by those councils in fact regards divorce. Raising awareness will ensure that sharia councils themselves ensure that they are signposting correctly for those women.
My Lords, as I understand it, the provisions of sharia law are that an allegation of rape can be heard only if the act is witnessed by two men. Given that this is almost never the case, how on earth can an allegation of rape be successful under sharia law?
My Lords, UK law has primacy and sharia law does not. The Government take that view very strongly. Where there have been cases of rape, as the noble Baroness has mentioned, sharia councils must ensure that they signpost correctly the legal remedies that are available. I hasten to add that, at the end of the day, we must ensure that the women themselves are aware of what their rights are in the UK.