A much more worrying agenda

Pragna Patel on why religious courts are bad for women.

On 1 June 2024, the world’s first Sikh court will open in London. This demands our urgent attention. For many years, I – as the co-director of Project Resist, and the former director of Southall Black Sisters – along with groups such as One Law for All have campaigned against the growth of religious courts because we believe they are tied to a wave of religious fundamentalism targeting the rights and freedoms of women.

Let’s face it: one of the core claims of most (or all) religions is the inferiority hence subordination of women. A goddy court that doesn’t think women are lesser beings is unlikely in the extreme.

The use of religious laws to regulate minority women’s lives is not only discriminatory, it is immensely harmful in a context where domestic abuse and related femicides of South Asian and other minority women remain persistently high.

The court presents itself as a professional, quasi-legal body, willing to adhere to formal legal rules of engagement. But so far, spokespeople justifying its existence have indicated a much more worrying agenda.

On 25 April 2024, Baldip Singh, a founder and spokesperson for the Sikh court, pointed to the so-called failure of the secular courts to take account of religious values in a case concerning a divorced Sikh woman who, as the primary carer of her young son, supported his decision to cut his hair in defiance of the wishes of his father (her ex-husband). The stance represents a fight for the preservation of the father’s rights that echoes a wider ideological battle, being fought by abusive men, about how the family courts are biased against them. The all too familiar demand for respect for religious values, regardless of the circumstances, is a worrying patriarchal precedent.

Because religious values are patriarchal values. God is a dude.

When many minority women seek to escape abuse, they are subjected to pressure and coercion to stay silent, and tolerate the abuse for the sake of keeping their family unit intact. Their profoundly unequal status, coupled with an unequal power distribution over knowledge of legal rights, will make it even more difficult to reject attempts at mediation, or to complain when decisions are made against their interests. The formal UK legal system allows women to obtain legal advice and representation in compliance with the rule of law and principles of fairness. However imperfect, that is a stark contrast to religious courts.

Gods hate women.

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