CR spoke with Baroness Cox to find out more

Baroness Caroline Cox
Baroness Caroline Cox

Earlier this month Baroness Caroline Cox, an independent peer, introduced a new Bill in the House of Lords aiming to outlaw the use of Sharia law where it conflicts with English law. It particularly looks to protect Muslim women from the potentially discriminatory use of Sharia law in the UK. The Islamic Sharia Council has attacked the Bill and the Baroness claiming that Baroness Cox has made no attempt to understand the workings of the Sharia councils. Rebecca Duffett spoke with her to find out more.

Rebecca: Please could you begin by telling us a bit about the bill you've introduced?

Baroness Cox: Certainly with pleasure. It's a bill to try and deal with equality and gender discrimination. It's called the Arbitration and Mediation Services Equality Bill.

We live in a country where we have a fundamental commitment to equality under the law and to freedom and that's a very precious commitment to our liberal democracy and our traditions, but there's been growing up in our midst, an alternative system, which affects many citizens, especially women. It's a kind of quasi legal system that goes under the name of Sharia law and obviously it's associated with the Muslim community. It discriminates systematically against women, particularly in matters of family law and testimony evidence before the law and domestic violence. I just don't feel you can have a quasi legal system operating alongside our own historic and traditional legal system, particularly one which discriminates against women and is causing many women real suffering.

Rebecca: So the courts apply to just Muslim women?

Baroness Cox: No the courts apply to those who wish to use them, so they are available for anyone to use. The bill doesn't stop them using them. Its religious freedom that we can go to our religious leaders and ask for advice and they can help with mediation and disputes and so on, but the issue is that the principles of Sharia law, on which they operate, are inherently discriminatory against women. For example, just to put some flesh on the skeleton, let's look at divorce; under Sharia law a man can obtain a divorce extremely easily; for a woman it's very hard. Women have to get their husband's permission and also she often has to pay. If her husband denies her permission she's stuck and if her husband denies her the money, it's very hard for her to divorce.

The second issue is child custody. In the event of a divorce, the guardianship of the children goes to the father. At the age of seven, custody of the children can, under Sharia law, automatically go to the father, so there's a difference in child custody.

Then there's a difference with regard to re-marriage. The man, if he had an Islamic divorce can re-marry and then he can go abroad and bring another wife back to this country; by the British system it's polygamy, it's not bigamy. He wasn't married under British law. Then he enjoys life with that wife. Then he divorces her and goes and gets another wife and he can do that four times, so we have polygamy in this country, which can cause a lot of suffering and hardship for women who don't have their own rights.

Finally, just by way of example, there's a real problem with intimidation. If a woman wants a divorce and wanted to go to one of our English courts, a civil court, she might have a lot of pressure put on by the local community not to do that as it would bring shame on the community, but instead go to the Sharia court where she would have this discrimination.

It's a real problem and the intimidation is fairly tough. I was speaking to one lady from the east end of London and she described how her husband had divorced her for a long time. She can't remarry. She desperately wants her own divorce so she can get a life, but her husband won't give it to her. She went to the Sharia court, but under great pressure and she was threatened that if she pursued that, then her family back in her country of origin would be vulnerable to attack; in fact I think her young brother was attacked because she brought shame on the family.

There's a lot going on below the surface where women are really suffering and which we should know about and address. Nobody seems to do much about this so I thought, I sit in Parliament, I have the responsibility and I ought to do something, hence the introduction of this Bill.

Rebecca: How can this already be operating in the UK, when there are so many contradictions to British law?

Baroness Cox: Well it is and that's the big problem. You have here a very difficult situation.

We also have a commitment to freedom and religious freedom. If we want to live according to our religious choice and we as Christians might want to go to a church, to a pastor or minister if we have problems in a family, then everyone should be entitled to go and seek some kind of mediation, some kind of help and support in the event of problems. There's nothing wrong with allowing people religious freedom to choose, to get some help from their religious leaders.

The fundamental problem in the Sharia system is that it totally favours the man. I've mentioned divorce and child custody. As far as domestic violence is concerned, I've spoken to many women who have been seriously abused and they've gone to the Sharia council/Sharia court and they've just been told to go back and live with their husband again and give him a second chance. There is no protection order, no constraining order and I have spoken to quite a lot of women who have suffered that.