A new documentary secretly filmed inside several of the 85 Islamic Sharia Law courts operating in Britain has exposed the systematic discrimination that many women are suffering at the hands of Muslim jurists.
The documentary, Secrets of Britain's Sharia Courts, was filmed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and was first aired on BBC Panorama, a long-running current affairs program, on April 8.
The undercover investigation proves what has long been suspected: namely, that Sharia courts, which operate in mosques and houses across Britain, routinely issue rulings on domestic and marital issues according to Islamic Sharia law that are at odds with British law. Although Sharia rulings are not legally binding, those subject to the rulings often feel obliged to obey them as a matter of religious belief, or because of pressure from family and community members to do so.
The documentary contends that the Sharia courts, run by Muslim judges known as qadi, are putting women at risk of violence from abusive husbands by pressuring them to stay in abusive marriages.
In one case, the BBC secretly filmed proceedings at the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, a heavily Islamized area in east London. While there, a BBC reporter met Sonia, a Muslim woman from Leeds who has suffered extreme physical abuse from her husband. When Sonia obtained a civil divorce, the courts allowed her husband only indirect access to the children.
But when Sonia went to Leyton Sharia Council for an Islamic divorce, she was told she would have to give up custody of the children to her husband. According to British law, Sharia courts are not allowed to interfere in child access matters.
After Sonia threatened to contact the police, the Leyton Sharia Council dropped its demand.
Reflecting on the court case, Sonia said, "I could not bear the thought of such a violent person having my children. What was shocking was when I explained to them why he should not have that access to the children, their reaction was, well, you cannot go against what Islam says."
In another case, a Muslim convert from Bristol named Cara contacted the Leyton Sharia Council for a divorce. Cara, who met her husband at university, had been persuaded to have only a Sharia marriage. After the wedding, she was abused by her husband, who allegedly controlled her by taking all of her earnings. After he brought prostitutes to their home, Cara ran away to a shelter.
The Leyton Sharia Council told Cara she would have be accompanied by her estranged husband for arbitration. "I was shocked," says Cara. "Surely they can see that women who have been through this cannot be forced to meet up with someone who is abusing them."
The BBC then sent an undercover reporter to the Leyton Sharia Council to see what advice its members would give a vulnerable female client. Her story was that her husband was hitting her.
During the proceedings, the secret recordings show that Suhaib Hasan, a senior member of the Leyton Sharia Council, told the undercover reporter that going to the police would result in her having to go to a shelter, which, he said, was a "very bad option."
Hasan suggested that she ask herself if the violence was due to her own actions, then urged her to redouble her efforts to be a good wife by cooking and cleaning for her husband.
The BBC also filmed proceedings at Sharia Council of Dewsbury, a city in West Yorkshire that is a magnet for Muslim immigration. (Islamists have promised to turn Dewsbury into an independent Islamic state ruled by Sharia law, and entirely apart from British jurisprudence.)
The documentary also shows a woman named Ayesha who has been physically abused by her estranged husband and then went to the Dewsbury Sharia Council to get a divorce. Although her husband has been imprisoned for violence, Ayesha was told she would have to go to mediation with him. The advice ignored injunctions issued by a British court and which Ayesha and her children hold against her husband due to his abuse.
According to Ayesha, "I cannot do that because he is not even allowed near my house, and because I am frightened. I cannot face him... but they did not take any notice."
After an outside lawyer became involved in Ayesha's case, the Dewsbury Sharia Council eventually agreed to see Ayesha on her own. It took Ayesha two years for her divorce to be granted by the council, by which time her husband had re-married in Pakistan.
The BBC showed the secret footage to the head of the Crown Prosecution Service in northwestern England, Nazir Afzal, a Muslim who has spoken out against honor-based domestic violence. He said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by what he had seen.
Referring to the Sharia courts, Afzal said, "Most of them are fine, are absolutely fine, but there are some who are putting women at risk. And doing so for ridiculous reasons, namely that they are somehow responsible for the abuse they are suffering."
Under the Arbitration Act 1996, Sharia courts in Britain -- home to a sizable Muslim population of nearly 3 million -- are legally recognized as providing a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). In addition to marital disputes, Sharia courts rule in conflicts over inheritance, contractual disagreements between Muslim landlords and tenants and sometimes between employees and their employer.
But Sharia courts have long been accused of discriminating against women. In the case of divorce, for example, men and women are treated differently. When a man has initiated a divorce, the procedure is called talaq; when a woman has initiated a divorce, it is called khula.
With an Islamic marriage, a man can initiate the divorce from his wife by pronouncing the so-called triple-talaq ["I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you."]. By contrast, the only way for women to divorce their husbands is through the use of Sharia councils. Women are required to produce two male witnesses, and, while a man pays nothing, an Islamic divorce costs a woman at least £400 ($600).
Moreover, under Sharia law, a woman must pay compensation to her husband by handing over all of her dowry and other wedding gifts before a divorce can be granted. This can effectively constrain women from seeking a divorce because, with the loss of the dowry, they have no financial means of support. Because Sharia marriages are not recognized under British law, when it comes to a divorce, Muslim women are not automatically entitled to half the house or financial assets.
The British Parliament held its first-ever full parliamentary debate on the issue of Sharia courts in October 2012, after the Baroness Cox, who has long campaigned against the spread of Islamic law in Britain, presented a bill in the House of Lords that would specifically limit the activities of Sharia courts and explicitly require them to uphold equality laws including women's rights.
The so-called Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill -- currently moving through the legislative process -- would also make it a criminal offense punishable by five years in prison for anyone falsely to claim or imply that Sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over British family or criminal law.
Baroness Cox told the House of Lord about Sharia law cases she had encountered, including that of a woman who had been admitted to hospital by her violent husband -- who had left her for another woman but still denied her a religious divorce so she could remarry.
Another woman was forced to travel to Jordan to seek permission to remarry from a seven-year-old boy she had never met because she had no other male relatives. A third woman who came to see her was so afraid of being seen going into the Sharia court that she hid behind a tree.
Another woman told Baroness Cox: "I feel betrayed by Britain, I came to this country to get away from all this but the situation is worse here than in my country of origin."
At the same hearing, Baroness Donaghy, a Labour Party peer, said: "The definition of mutuality is sometimes being stretched to such limits that a women is said to consent to a process when in practice, because of a language barrier, huge cultural or family pressure, ignorance of the law, a misplaced faith in the system or a threat of complete isolation, that mutuality is as consensual as rape."
Baroness Cox added: "These examples are just the tip of an iceberg as many women live in fear, so intimidated by family and community that they dare not speak out or ask for help. It is a system which, in its gender discrimination causing women such suffering, is utterly incompatible with our country's values. It is time to draw a line in the sand and say 'enough is enough.'"
The Leyton Sharia Council -- the oldest Islamic council in Britain and one of the most active in the country -- is also hoping to draw a line in the sand: to establish the full recognition of Islamic Sharia law.
On its website, the Leyton Sharia Council writes: "Though the Council is not yet legally recognized by the authorities in the UK, the fact that it is already established, and is gradually gaining ground among the Muslim community, and the satisfaction attained by those who seek its ruling, are all preparatory steps towards the final goal of gaining the confidence of the host community in the soundness of the Islamic legal system and the help and insight they could gain from it. The experience gained by the scholars taking part in its procedures make them more prepared for the eventuality of recognition for Islamic law."