Three years ago, Nazia, a British Muslim woman of Pakistani descent, wrote to the Islamic Sharia Council in London, a panel of religious scholars and clerics, asking for a religious divorce. She already had obtained a civil divorce in an English court, which had granted her custody of her two children and child support from her ex-husband.
But having been raised as a traditional Muslim, Nazia says she could not be at peace with her conscience until she also had a religious divorce. For starters, if she remarried, it would be considered unlawful in the eyes of her religion. Secondly, her husband refused to recognize the civil divorce and bullied her, insisting he still had “rights” over her, according to Nazia.
“For my peace of mind and sanity I wanted the Islamic divorce so I was not in limbo anymore,” she says.
As Nazia tells it, she “naively assumed” a religious divorce would be as efficient as her civil divorce. She filled out the council's divorce request form, paid a fee and heard back from a council imam that she had valid grounds for a divorce under Islamic law. Then she waited — and waited.
Months later, the council summoned her to a meeting with one of its religious judges, instructing her to bring along a male family member. At the meeting, she was shocked when the shaykh (religious leader) ignored her, speaking only to her brother in Urdu.
“I felt like I'd gone to a rural court in a village in Pakistan, that I was a woman behind some kind of a partition and I can't speak my mind,” she recalls. “I was aghast. I'm independent, I'm an educated woman, I feel I can represent myself,” says Nazia, who teaches physics at a secondary school.
But she was equally shocked — and distraught — when the scholar recommended she try to reconcile with her ex-husband. She had already lived apart from him for more than two years after several failed reconciliation efforts. “I felt I'd hit a brick wall,” she says. In desperation, she asked her divorce lawyer to intervene.
After several weeks, the lawyer did obtain the Islamic divorce certificate. Nazia blames the delay on the council's all-volunteer staff, but she also is critical of the all-male tribunal: The older imams from Pakistan “can't relate to life here,” she says.
At 31, Nazia is one of a new generation of Muslim feminists who can cite the Prophet Muhammad's utterances in support of women's rights. “Islam offers options,” she says, “and it's about time the shroud of secrecy and bureaucracy was lifted, so women can access those options.”
According to Aina Khan, a London attorney specializing in both English and Islamic family law, complaints like Nazia's are more common today, a phenomenon Khan blames partly on the growing demand for such divorces.
Some secular British groups, such as One Law for All, have called for abolishing such councils, saying they constitute a parallel legal system that is inherently discriminatory toward women. But Khan says the councils, which have no legal authority, fill “a natural demand” among women like Nazia, who believe a religious divorce is required by their faith.
Anti-Sharia demonstrators in London's Hyde Park on Nov. 21, 2009, contend that religion-based courts discriminate against women and children. (AFP/Getty Images/Leon Neal)
Ideally, she suggests, English law should recognize Muslim religious marriages on an equal plane with civil marriages. Muslim women who have not obtained a civil wedding in addition to their religious marriage are often shocked to discover that they can't seek financial awards in English courts when the marriage breaks up, according to Khan.
However, Muslim hardliners in England do not want legal recognition of their marriages, she says, because that would end the underground, polygamous unions of Muslim men who regularize their relations with girlfriends through religious marriages. The Quran allows Muslim men to have up to four wives, but because polygamy is illegal in Britain, those marriages are not recognized by English courts.
Khan favors some reforms — short of legal recognition — in the operation of Sharia councils. “It's unhealthy for anybody to be able to set up an organization and dispense justice in their front room,” she says. “We need to regularize it.”
Those sentiments were echoed at a recent seminar for family-law experts in London after a lecture by Kahn. Over the past two decades, British family courts have encouraged all couples to use out-of-court mediation to resolve the terms of their divorces before going to court. To do that, said one judge, more Muslim mediators are needed to work with Muslim couples. Divorce mediators need special training, said a representative of a government-funded mediation service, who asked if Sharia councils should be required to have similar training — and auditing.
Cardiff Law School Professor Gillian Douglas calls concern about training “a red herring” if the mediation is voluntary and the mediator receives no public funding. Also, studies find that most women are granted the divorces they seek from Sharia councils. In a recent study, Douglas found that out of 27 divorces requested from the Birmingham Central Mosque's Shariah Council, about three-quarters were granted.
A speedier religious divorce — taking three-and-a-half months instead of a year — is offered by the four-year-old Muslim Arbitration Tribunal. Originally founded to handle commercial arbitration cases, the tribunal now handles about 600 divorces a year, partly due to dissatisfaction with the mosque councils, according to Shaykh Faiz Siddiqi, an attorney and founder of the tribunal.
He contrasts the councils' lack of consistent, publicized procedures and standards with the tribunal panel, which consists of one lawyer and a religious authority and publishes its procedures on its website. “I hope we can make the councils obsolete,” he says.
Although little is known about the informal settings in which Muslim clerics settle disputes or hand out religious divorces in continental Europe, many experts view Britain as having the most extensive network of such councils in Europe.
As for the British media's jitters about the specter of Sharia courts replacing English law, Siddiqi says groups like his allow Muslims to be “good citizens and not think they have to go back to Bangladesh” to get a decision aligned with their faith. Citing long-standing Jewish religious courts in Britain, he says, “The Jews have done this for hundreds of years, and it helped them to integrate.”
— Sarah Glazer