Last year the Government announced that it was going to review the operation of Sharia Law in the UK – as part of its “counter extremism” strategy. Even then, it was another tiresome example of how the Government contributes to Islamophobia by conflating “Muslims” and “extremism”. Now, Home Secretary Theresa May has announced that Professor Mona Siddiqui will lead the independent inquiry team – but she has put a new spin on the investigation, stressing that the team will be looking at whether Sharia courts discriminate against women. She thereby repeats another stereotype: that Islam is uniquely discriminatory towards women. However, Ms May, who is likely to be a contender for the Tory leadership as soon as it becomes vacant, has projected herself as both a hawk (tough on terrorism) and a dove (pro-women).
It is fairly fatuous to condemn religions for discriminating against women. The whole point of a religion is that it has a set or rules or norms which its followers believe are handed down or endorsed by a deity – a non human leader. It is ridiculous to expect those religions to jettison their beliefs in favour of human laws that were concocted hundreds of years later. No holy book in the world has a paragraph saying “and then the good lord decided to end the practice of making women second class citizens because behold, he spotted that the Human Rights Act had been enshrined in British law, and he beholdeth it and saw it was good and he decided that he would abideth by it.”
In a country such as the UK, of course Parliament’s laws are supreme. Whereas a minority of Muslim families believe they have the right to marry off their daughters without their daughters’ specific consent, UK law will prevail and children will be safeguarded against that practice. That is very much not to say that all – or even a majority – of Muslims believe in forced marriage.
It is probably not that Ms May, or other ministers, do actually rationally believe that most of the Muslims living in the UK are trading their daughters in forced marriages. However, having the Home Secretary announcing that Sharia Courts are to be investigated in case they are discriminatory to women over issues such as forced marriages just confirms the false stereotype, rather than challenging it.
If Ms May was so concerned about Muslim women in the UK being treated fairly, she could take a look at her Government’s policies which are affecting these women’s life chances by impoverishing them and cutting back on their chances to educate themselves and become economically independent and play an active part in society. You would have thought that the Home Secretary of a country which has a number of female Muslim MPs – and a Muslim winner of the Great British Bake Off – would be able to see past the stereotypes, but apparently this is not the case.
If Ms May is so keen to stamp out discrimination, there are plenty of other institutions she can inquire into. On the religious side, there are several Jewish Courts operating in the UK which undertake tasks such as granting religious divorces, which can sit alongside civil ones. The Church of England is probably out of the woods now, as it has surrendered to a long internal campaign and now allows women to be ordained as priests and as bishops.
However, Catholicism could be worth a scrutiny. It’s a bit of an outside branch of Christianity in the UK, since a UK king, some 500 or so years ago, decided to pull the country out of mainstream Christianity so that he could get married for a second time. However, it operates freely in the UK, while remaining answerable to a foreign leader (who lives within the EU, though). It discriminates heavily against women, who cannot be priests at all (Catholics explain that women have a different role allotted to them by their God) and who are subject to the rules of the Church which expect them to marry and to have children. For good measure, it discriminates against all non-straight individuals by outlawing all forms of gay sex and behaviour. It also has a long record of its priests sexuall abusing children. Ms May sees none of this as a threat to the British way of life and is leaving it well alone.
Other institutions within society also discriminate against women: golf clubs, gentlemen’s clubs and the freemasons, just for a start. Again, Ms May is leaving them to it.
Other members of the inquiry panel are Sam Momtaz (a barrister specialising in family law), Sir Mark Hedley (a retired High Court judge) and Anne Marie Hutchinson QC (who also specialises in family law). Imam Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi and Imam Qari Asim are to act as advisors to the Panel on religious and theological matters. Let’s see whether they back Ms May’s discriminatory assault on Islam, or whether they take her to task for it.