The Archbishop of Canterbury says sharia courts could rule on family issues, but this is exactly where they can cause most harm
There are moments when public debate in Britain appears to take place in a vacuum. As the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a convincing impression yesterday of a man suffering the torments of the Inquisition, the debate was moving away from his actual observations about Islamic law, sharia, to the question of his fitness (or otherwise) to hold his office. Rowan Williams claimed that his remarks about the unavoidability of adopting some aspects of sharia in this country had been misunderstood, prompting an interesting response from his critics: the cleric was a brilliant man, they said, but his utterances were simply too opaque for hoi polloi (especially the media) to comprehend. This prompts an obvious question - if no one understands what the Archbishop is saying, how do they know how intelligent he is? - but it also diverted attention from something much more important. Williams's clarification of his remarks seemed to suggest that he wasn't calling for a parallel legal system for Muslims, more a recognition of something that is already happening. Yet there has been a strange reluctance to ask a real expert who has seen the way sharia operates in this country: someone like Rahni Binjie, project manager of Roshni Asian Women's Aid in Nottingham.
Binjie was interviewed in a major study of honour-based crime published by the Centre for Social Cohesion last week, and argued that Islamic leaders are reluctant to grant divorces to women who have children. "This is because the community sees the family structure as being of so much importance," she said. Her colleague Tanisha Jnagel said that the Islamic Sharia Council hears both sides but relies on religious texts to decide whether a divorce should be granted: "In our experience, this isn't going to result in a solution which is fair for the woman." According to the study, Crimes of the Community: Honour-Based Violence in the UK by James Brandon and Salam Hafez, women are being forced to stay in violent marriages as a result. "Many women from the Muslim and Sikh communities report that they have difficulties gaining religious divorces from their respective religious leaders," they say.
This will come as no surprise to Britain's agunot, or "chained women", who have been denied a religious divorce in Orthodox Jewish courts; even if they obtain a civil divorce, they are still married under Jewish law and any children they have with new partners will be mamzer, or illegitimate. Last week an Islamic Council in Leyton, east London, revealed that it had handled more than 7,000 divorces, but did not say what proportion was refused.
As soon as you look at the actual operation of religious law in this country, the picture looks less rosy. Even if the Archbishop didn't have in mind barbaric punishments such as stoning women to death for adultery, there is plenty of evidence that sharia courts are a means of consolidating patriarchal power in societies where Muslim women have begun to demand the same rights as men. The Department for Work and Pensions recently made an astonishing decision to pay state benefits to Muslim men for each of their wives, as long as the marriages were contracted legally abroad. Bigamy is illegal in Britain and the spectacle of the Government colluding in the practice of polygyny - not polygamy, for Muslim women cannot have four husbands - is a signal that ministers are losing their moral compass on the subject of women's rights. …