On Friday last week I sat in the cramped wooden Clerks’ Box in the House of Lords – alongside the comfortable padded red leather benches of the Peers and just three metres from the large glittering golden throne of the Monarch – and watched a bit of history being made.
For nearly two years I’ve been working in parliament with inspirational cross-bencher Baroness Caroline Cox to develop legislation that tackles the gender discrimination inherent in Sharia law at the eighty-five or so Sharia courts across the UK. I sat with a couple of colleagues in the Clerks’ Box in order to be available to her with advice and analysis during the debate.
It’s been an extraordinary journey as we’ve listened to the heart-breaking stories of many Muslim women. We also visited and were stunned by the rank misogyny of the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, east London (here) whose head, Shaykh Abu Sayeed, refused to shake Baroness Cox’s hand because she is a woman (he shook mine instead). We built a broad coalition of support that includes the National Secular Society (here), One Law For All (here) and the Christian Institute (here). And we worked with sympathetic Peers, learned lawyers and eagle-eyed parliamentary draftsmen to come up with a private members bill that would alleviate the discrimination and despair of woman at the hands of these religious courts.
One educated woman in her fifties living in south west England told us over a meal how the Imam at her local Sharia council insisted she must get permission from a male relative in order to get married. The only one available was a seven-year-old boy living in the Middle East so, after many protests and much fury at the humiliation, she was forced to send to the boy to request his agreement. She angrily waved at us his signed authorisation giving her permission to wed.
Some of the other women’s stories we heard can be downloaded from (here).
The Bill itself is the dry-sounding Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill (here) but the debate (here) was anything but dry as Peer after Peer spoke strongly in favour. Only the Bishop of Manchester and Baroness Uddin expressed reservations.
Absurdly the government spokesman Lord Gardiner tried to defend the indefensible and justify the government’s total inaction (incisively summarised by Douglas Murray (here) as “there is nothing to see here, and please could everybody look away and move on”). But he was holed below the waterline by judicious interventions in rapid succession from Baroness Deech and Lords Carlile, Elton, Cormack and Swinfen. It was gripping stuff.
The history-making lay in the fact that, despite the rapid growth of Sharia – both Sharia courts and finance – in the UK, this was the first ever debate about this issue in either of the Houses of Parliament. There have been parliamentary questions which invariably elicited a bog-standard government stonewall, but no discussion or debate.
Peers saluted Baroness Cox for her courage in raising the combustible topic on behalf of oppressed women across the UK. Hear hear!