Horrified to hear there were Sharia courts in England

Rahila Gupta at Open Democracy shares a story of how a Sharia court in the UK trashed one woman’s life.

On 7 November, there will be a public seminar on “Sharia Law, Legal Pluralism and Access to Justice” 7-9pm at Committee Room 12 at the Houses of Parliament. Below, we publish the story of a woman Shagufta (not her real name) who spoke to the campaign group, One Law for All, and described how a brush with the Sharia courts ruined her life forever.

After my husband died in 1987 I moved to London with my children.  My older daughter, Lubna (not her real name) moved to London in 1994 after the breakdown in her marriage. After the British courts granted her a civil divorce, I hoped that would be the end of our involvement with my ex-son-in-law. Sadly this was not to be the case. He visited our local mosque and denounced me to the gathering, saying that I was ‘a loose woman’ who was pimping her daughters. He asked the mosque elders to help him get his children and his wife back to save their morals. A delegation from the mosque visited my home to convince me that the best thing would be to make my daughter return to her husband. I told them she was divorced but they said the English divorce meant nothing and was not valid in Islam. I was so angry at the vile allegations of these men.

Another Imam, a close family friend of ours, told us that Lubna would have to seek a khula (divorce) from a Sharia court. I vehemently disagreed and cited the cases of several Muslim women I had known who had been divorced in the English courts without any need for a religious divorce. These women had since remarried too. The imam said the mosques had failed in their duty and that these women would go to hell as they were committing zina (adultery) and producing haram children. I reluctantly agreed to speak to Lubna.

We appeared before the Sharia court. The whole process in the Sharia court at Regents Park mosque was shocking. Lubna was dismissed every time she spoke; I was treated very disrespectfully every time I tried to intervene. They were not interested in anything we had to say, not even the real risks that my ex-son-in-law posed to his children let alone to my daughter. He had beaten my grandson a few years earlier and split his head open. He still has scars on his face.

None of the information from the civil proceedings (affidavit, non-molestation orders etc) was admissible in the Sharia Court. When Lubna’s ex-husband stated that he did not want to grant khula but wanted a reconciliation ‘for the sake of the children’, the Judges agreed. I was horrified. As my daughter and I were protesting so much, a further hearing date was set.  At the next hearing, Lubna was told to reconcile and that a khula would not be granted. We were also told that my ex-son-in-law had custodial rights over my grandchildren and that they would remain with Lubna as long as my ex-son-in-law agreed. I do not have words to convey my anger at what was being done in this supposed court. I left the Sharia Court determined to find a way to protect my daughter and her children.

Remember how Naz Shah interrupted Maryam to demand a yes or no answer to the question is a finding of a Sharia court legally binding in the UK? That’s not the issue. The issue is all that bullying dressed up as Religious Law. Legally, Shagufta and Lubna could just ignore the whole thing. Socially, not so much.

After the hearing, Lubna lived with a sustained campaign of harassment and abuse from my ex-son-in-law.  During this time he kidnapped my grandchildren and threatened to keep them if Lubna did not allow him to come and live with her. He threatened to kill me and my other children if she involved the police. It was only with the help of her father-in-law that the children were returned to her.

What happened next, I cannot even bring myself to say the words so I will quote from Lubna’s statement, ‘Several weeks after the children were returned to me, my ex-husband began calling at all hours of the day and night (he had my address and contact details from the Sharia Court papers). I refused to let him in. I contacted the police and applied for a new non-molestation order. However, the harassment did not stop. Very late one night my ex-husband broke in and violently raped me. I did not report this to the police as I was too scared. After the rape he wrote to my mother and the Imam and told them I had slept with him and that we were now together again. My mother came to my house as soon as she received the letter and was shocked to see the injuries resulting from the violence I suffered that night.’

From the point of view of that Sharia court at Regents Park mosque he didn’t rape her at all, he simply enjoyed his rights as her husband.

My family in Pakistan were horrified to hear that there were Sharia courts in England. My family sent written advice from several scholars in Pakistan and India which confirmed that there was absolutely no need for a khula as the civil divorce was recognised as a formal termination of the marriage; if Lubna were to remarry in Pakistan then a copy of the divorce from the English courts would be sufficient.

However, with regard to my grandchildren, the letters did confirm that Lubna only had guardianship of the children under Sharia principles but as she had custody of the children under English civil law, they advised that the ruling of the English courts should be accepted as they had based their decision on the best interests of the children.

I sent copies of the letters to my ex-son-in-law and his father. His father gave his word that this would be an end to the matter. He had never thought a Sharia divorce certificate was necessary.  I do not understand where these Sharia courts have come from. I come from the generation of immigrants to this country that was able to be part of British society and to be Muslim without the need for separate legal systems. After the Sharia court proceedings ended I supposed that my life would continue as it had done before. Nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead.

What was that? Her whole social world shut her out. She lost her friends.

The ostracism began with people who had once been friends starting to avoid me. I asked my friend Guljabeen if she knew what was going on. Guljabeen told me that the incident at the mosque (where I was accused of pimping my daughters) had become common knowledge in the area where we lived. My children were no longer welcome in the homes of their Muslim friends. I used to sing the naatsand nasheeds at prayer gatherings and was well known for doing this. All invitations to do this ceased.

Three of my other daughters have married non-Muslims and left Islam. I have suffered almost total ostracism for supporting them in their choices. My closest friend from childhood, who lives in the area, has stopped visiting me.

This case study is one of many testimonies gathered by women’s rights organisations, namely British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Centre for Secular Space, Iranian Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation,  One Law for All and Southall Black Sisters.

That public seminar starts in a few hours. If I were in London I would go.

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