Recently it has been suggested that British Courts should be able to issue Islamic divorces through a specialised unit with the aim of protecting the rights of Muslim Women.
Elham Manea, a Professor at Zurich University, is due to make recommendations to the home affairs select committee, proposing compulsory civil marriages alongside religious ceremonies and for penalties to be given to imams who break the rules. These measures potentially could render sharia councils, mainly used by women seeking an Islamic divorce, unnecessary and redundant.
According to sharia law, men can unilaterally divorce their wives by pronouncing Talaq (divorce) three times. However, women are required to obtain a judicial decree on specific grounds or give up financial rights to obtain an Islamic divorce through the sharia council.
The central issue is that many women attending sharia councils have not formalised their religious marriage under British law and are often forced to give up their civil rights to secure an Islamic divorce. Furthermore, some women have reported being forced into mediation or reconciliation by sharia councils even if they have suffered physical abuse at the hands of their husbands.
Sharia councils, of which there are thought to be up to 85 in the UK, have no powers of enforcement but for those who use them their decisions are culturally and religiously binding. Arguably they are thriving because there is no other way for a Muslim woman to obtain an Islamic divorce. If an alternative was offered by the government, the majority of sharia council’s work would come to an end.
Elham Manea is calling for a national campaign to register all Islamic marriages, a process which is already implemented in other Islamic countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. This move, if adopted by the government would be welcomed by many as way of protecting and safeguarding the financial and legal rights of married Muslim women in the UK.