Since 2011 I’ve been working with the outstanding crossbench peer Baroness Caroline Cox on her legislative initiative, the Mediation and Arbitration Services (Equality) Bill.
This turgid title masks sensitive and combustible issues: The primary purpose of the Bill is to tackle gender-discrimination in the 85+ Sharia courts across the UK. The secondary purpose is to tackle the growth of a parallel legal system in the UK.
Two years ago I covered the background to this proposed legislation in a post about the Bill’s Second Reading debate in the House of Lords. Despite multiple testimonies and clear evidence of discrimination against women, and strong cross-party back-bench support, the government opposed the Bill on the head-in-the-sand grounds that adequate legislation is already in place to deal with the issue.
Memorably, this inflexibility earned the new and junior minister responsible, Lord Gardiner, a magisterial put-down from one of the country’s top lawyers: “(Lord Gardiner) has given an Olympian exegesis of the processes and laws and consultations that are available to deal with the intellectual problem,” Lord Alex Carlile QC thundered from the LibDem benches behind and above the minister. “However we are concerned here with real people and real cases.”
This was Parliament’s first ever debate about Sharia. It was an historic debate – but this still cut no ice with the government.
Since then we’ve continued to push the issue in Westminster and Whitehall. We held briefings for Peers and met with individual MPs; we set up an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on ‘Honour’ Based Abuse ; we met and listened to more Muslim women; we supported vital research by Muslim women’s group Aurat led by the inspirational Habiba Jaan; we worked with other women’s groups like IKWRO, Inspire and Karma Nirvana; and we met off-record with a junior government minister and on-record with a key senior one.
The first sign that things were beginning to change came at the Conservative Party conference last September. For the first time Home Secretary Theresa May raised publicly the issue of Sharia law and women. “Across the country, there are concerns about the way Sharia law is being applied, the way women are told to live and the intolerant attitudes shown to people of different beliefs and ways of life,” she said. “We must not sleepwalk into separation, segregation and sectarianism.”
Encouraged that we may not be banging against a brick wall after all, we continued to work the corridors of Westminster and Baroness Cox grabbed every opportunity to speak out.
Then on Monday last week and in collaboration with the Bow Group, we were about to publish a report calling for a judge-led investigation into Sharia courts when Theresa May, now a Tory leadership contender thanks to David Cameron, announced the government’s new counter-extremism policy; unexpectedly this included an independent review of Sharia courts.
“There is evidence of women being “divorced” under Sharia law and left in penury, wives who are forced to return to abusive relationships because Sharia councils say a husband has a right to “chastise”, and Sharia councils giving the testimony of a woman only half the weight of the testimony of a man,” said Mrs May. “We will commission an independent figure to complete an investigation into the application of Sharia law in England and Wales.”
This was fantastic as far as it went, but on Tuesday we published our report anyway. The Ministry of Justice has previously run scared and aborted an investigation into Sharia courts citing lack of co-operation by Islamic authorities; we reckoned a formal judge-led investigation with powers to subpoena witnesses is more likely to succeed.
On Wednesday Boris Johnson, current favourite in the Tory leadership stakes, weighed in saying that Sharia law is “absolutely unacceptable” in the UK and should not be allowed to preside even over family disputes.
On Thursday journalist Leo McKinstry – who famously turned on his former boss, Labour’s anti-marriage deputy leader and Shadow Deputy Prime Minster Harriet Harman, and accused her of preaching a “dangerous gospel of feminist fascism” – praised “robust” Boris and spelled out his support on the issue. Harriet Harman on the other hand, like most feminists, remains culpably silent.
So the cat is out of the bag and the hare is running. There’s been a sea change and Sharia is open for proper political scrutiny at last.
Muslim women up and down the country will be grateful.