In the UK Muslims should undergo a civil marriage as well as a religious ceremony to make sure women are protected under the law, an independent review of sharia councils has said.
The measure was needed to lessen “discriminatory practices” in the councils, the report found, although it said that abolishing them was “not viable” and they were “fulfilling a need in some Muslim communities”.
Led by Professor Mona Siddiqui, Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh she said “We hope that our recommendations, which result largely from the evidence we heard, can reduce discrimination and offer possible ways forward to help Muslim women gain greater confidence and agency over their lives.”
The investigation was conducted by a panel chaired by Mona, for Sharia councils to be regulated by the state – but this idea was immediately rejected by the Home Office.
The Government said it would consider the panel’s other recommendations, which included changing the law to ensure a civil marriage is conducted at the same time as any Islamic marriage ceremony, as already happens in Christian and Jewish marriages.
This would ensure the couple were legally married and had full protection afforded to them in family law, the panel said.
The panel also said Some Muslim women who get divorced might still feel it is important for a Sharia council to confirm the decision, the report said. However, most Sharia councils will automatically do this if they are shown the legal document that ends a marriage, called a a decree absolute.
The inquiry also called for “awareness campaigns, educational programmes and other similar measures” to inform women of their rights, and in particular to ensure they understood the importance of ensuring their marriage is recognised in law.
The panel said: “Women (and men) often face huge cultural barriers when seeking a divorce and for this reason it is imperative that they are aware of their rights under domestic law and are not afraid to come forward.”
The Home Office rejected calls for regulation. A spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the independent review team’s comprehensive analysis.
“We will not be taking forward the review’s recommendation to regulate Sharia councils. Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws.
“In Britain we have a long tradition of freedom of worship and religious tolerance, where many people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices and benefit from their guidance. The Government has no intention of changing this position.
“We will consider carefully the review’s findings and its remaining recommendations.”
The inquiry was set up in 2016 by Theresa May, the Prime Minister, who was Home Secretary at the time.