A few days ago BBC’s Panorama aired an undercover report on the so-called British sharia councils. The program was pitched as an exposé of the secrets of British sharia councils. The program wasn’t as revealing as it suggested; it only showed sessions of the Leyton council, it basically recycled several cases and allegations that were already reported in a booklet Equal and Free? Evidence in support of Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill (Researched and Drafted by barrister Charlotte Rachael Proudman; an adviser to Baroness Cox). London: Equal and Free, 2012. The executive summary states:

2. There is growing concern over the emergence of a ‘quasi-legal’ system operating in parallel with our own which violates the principles of equality before the law and which is based on religiously sanctioned gender discrimination.
3. The establishment of Muslim arbitration tribunals and the growth of Sharia Councils may be welcomed in so far as they relieve British courts from pressure and provide perceived theologically appropriate resolutions to commercial and other disputes, whether under the Arbitration Act or via voluntary mediation.
4. However, often based on inherently gender-discriminatory principles, or operating outside their legal limits, they have also often been the cause of much suffering for women in this country.
5. One British Muslim woman claims; ‘I’m speaking as a British Muslim – I would like to say that I feel terribly let down by the British State, with its schizophrenic response to the law, its own law, its abrogation of its responsibility to safeguarding rights of Muslim women.’
6. Many Muslim women claim they came to Britain hoping to escape the injustice of Sharia law – and found their plight is worse here than in their countries of origin.
7. The injustice inherent in religiously sanctioned discrimination is often compounded by intimidation: pressure from families and communities often prevents women from seeking their legal redress available in civil law.
8. Although the UK Government claims that all UK citizens have equal rights and access to the law of the land, this ‘de jure’ right is not a ‘de facto’ reality.
9. This report provides evidence of the problems and suffering of Muslim women in Britain today, including:
condoning of domestic violence by Sharia courts and councils; asymmetrical access to divorce; rulings regarding child custody that ignore the best interests of the child; discriminatory policies defining the testimonies of women as being only worth half that of men; and the denial of the concept of marital rape.

Both the booklet and this episode of BBC Panorama should be seen against the background of the proposed bill by the Baroness Cox trying to restrict the sharia-councils in Britain. You can watch the program here:
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlLRCvEud6Q]

I find programs like these not very helpful in understanding the complexities as to why and how Muslim women and men use these councils and how problems associated with the practices of these councils can be addressed. Certainly, based upon the studies known to me, it is clear the sharia councils could do a much better job in resolving domestic violence; an environment that is sensitive to cultural and religious issues might be the way to go but there is still much work to be done (as it is in wider UK society, or the Netherlands for that matter). Anthropologist John Bowen, who is conducting a study of two councils, published an excellent response in The Guardian:

[…]a different picture emerges from the several academic studies of the councils and their clients: imperfect institutions responding to a demand for a religious (not a legal) service. Firstly, let’s recognise that we have so many media accounts of sharia councils because they have opened their doors widely to the press. […]

Are they “parallel legal systems”?
They provide a religious divorce that has no civil-law effect, as do councils serving other UK religious communities, of which the Beth Din is the best known. […]

Do the councils discriminate against women?
Well, the major monotheisms do discriminate against women, each in its own way. Muslim men and women have unequal divorce powers: a man can divorce his wife without her consent, whereas a woman needs to either persuade him to do so or to ask a judge or, in lands without Islamic judges, a sharia council, to end the marriage. […] But the sharia councils did not create this particular divorce inequality; they are a response to it.

Do they charge women higher fees than men? Yes, generally twice as much, because for men they simply issue a certificate, whereas granting a woman a divorce is a more lengthy procedure, involving multiple letters to notify the husband and the chance for him to present his case, regardless of his country of residence. […]

Do they encourage violence toward women? No: as the Leyton council member said, even in the highly edited Panorama report, “this is not allowed”. […]

Do some councils seem out of touch with gender roles in the UK? I think so. Learned in religious matters, some councillors are less so in navigating the British social world. As a new generation, including more women, takes on these roles, the tone of council sessions will change as well. Indeed, it is already happening in some newer councils. Balanced media criticism, based on objectively gathered evidence, could remind them how important these changes will be.

Do read his full article HERE. The program did address several issues of concern such as advise on domestic violence. The Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board issued a statement ‘seeking self-regulation of shariah councils:

In this context we should like to emphasise that Shariah Councils are voluntary bodies which function by agreement of parties to a dispute. No person, male or female, can be forced to appear before a Shariah Council nor do the Shariah Councils have any legal powers of enforcing their conclusions or their suggested remedies. A party who feels aggrieved or dissatisfied with decision or conclusion of a Shariah Council is free to seek remedy from Civil Courts. […]The MINAB recognises that the current system of Shariah Councils requires reform in the following ways:

Read more HERE.

Also the Islamic Sharia Council responded to the program:

The underhand manner in which the BBC recently made its Panorama programme, ( “Secrets of Britain’s shariah councils” ), with secret recordings and edited conversations taken totally out of context is a testament to the declining standards among many journalists. Clearly the recommendations of the Leveson report into press standards have not been learned yet. It seems that Panorama had a pre-determined agenda and stereotype of how shariah councils operate, and they ensured that a round peg was forced to fit the square hole of this agenda. Veracity and justice were the first victims of Panorama’s diatribe against the Islamic Shariah Council. Baroness Cox is upset because her proposed private members Bill against shariah councils has not achieved the support she wants in Parliament, so a programme to discredit the ISC had to be manufactured. Her claim that the shariah councils run a parallel legal system is another fabrication designed to increase the sense of mistrust of Muslims that already exists in wider society.

The ISC takes a harsh stance on domestic violence. Women who cite domestic abuse in their applications for divorce are advised strongly to report it to the police. In January and February of 2013, the ISC decided 33 cases of judicial divorce in which domestic abuse was a factor. In not a single case were the women advised to return to their husbands, or to tolerate the abuse, or to avoid the police. Divorce was granted in all these cases.

The Panorama programme shows an undercover reporter pretending to be a victim of marital abuse, who is then told by Dr Hasan and his wife not to go to the police. Nazir Afzal, Chief Crown Prosecutor for the North-West, is quick to condemn the ISC without hearing what the secret reporter had actually said to the ISC.

You can read their full statement HERE.
A group called Women4Sharia put a response on Youtube:
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFTgu3Fh0nE]