Public Forum 'Sharia Law, Legal Pluralism and Access to Justice'

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The Centre for Kurdish Progress in partnership with organisations Culture Project, One Law for All, Centre for Secular Space, Southhall Black Sisters, Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation and British Muslims for Secular Democracy organised a public forum on 7 November 2016 in the House of Commons. 

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Joan Ryan MP for Enfield North kindly hosted this event and opened the discussion. 

This event was chaired by Raife Aytek, Director of the Centre for Kurdish Progress.

Speakers were Maryam NamazieDr. Savin Bapir-TardyHouzan Mahmoud, Yasmin Rehman, 'Gina KhanPragna Patel and Gita Sahgal. 

Click here to watch part 2

Joan Ryan MP opened the event by condemning the arrest and detention of the two co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party in Turkey along with a number of their parliamentary colleagues. She also added that Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria had a key role to play in the reconstruction of both countries and in defeating Islamic State. On the topic of Sharia law in Britain, she discussed the work of a parliamentary commission in Britain into researching the function of Sharia councils in the country, and commented that women can at times face discrimination in battles over custody and divorce settlements.

Ryan also praised British Prime insisted Theresa May's recent comments that religion had an important role in the lives of many people in Britain, but that there should only be one rule of law for all citizens.

Maryam Namazie began her speech by stating her disappointment that Sharia councils exist in Britain as she had fled such institutions in Iran. She argued that these councils can restrict the rights of women in various ways including the value of their testimony as less than that of a man and also the right of men to divorce the unilaterally.

Namazie also discussed the single-minded and narrow Islamist interpretation of Sharia, which leads to Islamist movements targeting women first, and excluding anyone who disagrees with them as non-Muslims. This in her view was because women are viewed as representative of their societies rather than individuals in their own rights. She discussed the involvement of Islamist, Wahhabist, Salafist and the Jamaat-I-Islami movements in Britain which she stated are involved with Sharia councils and Islamic organisations in the UK.

Namazie continued arguing that Islamists in Britain are gradually attempting to implement their interpretation of Sharia concepts for family law, and hope ultimately to implement criminal approaches in an Islamist polity. She added that these approaches have led to endorsements and support for marital rape and domestic violence which Islamists disguise with semantics. She was critical of the British government approached these courts, that women choose to go to them and believe they are legally binding, despite not being so. She called for the abolition of Sharia courts in Britain as a means of promoting legal equality for all citizens, and especially ethnic minority women.

Dr Savin Bapir-Tardy discussed the psychological willingness of vulnerable Muslim women in Britain to attend Sharia courts because of the weight behind obedience to authority figures and especially religious ones. She explained that women vulnerable women are effectively damned if they do or don't obey such authorities. She stated that the majority of her patients are vulnerable women who have shown evidence of post-traumatic stress (PTS) while going through divorces arbitrated by Sharia courts, and that they have often suffered from low confidence, female genital mutilation and domestic violence. She stated that these women have additionally not received redress for any grievances caused against them by their husbands even after disclosing to Sharia courts that their husbands had raped them. She added that these women's children's experiencing and being exposed to domestic violence also suffered PTS as a result. She stated that these women need a platform of support to be made aware of their legal rights as guaranteed by the British Government. She ended by quoting the negative experiences of one of her clients.

Houzan Mahmoud opened her speech commenting about her surprise as a Kurdish woman to come to the the United Kingdom to discuss the practice of Sharia law in Britain. She expressed her support for Kurdish women in Rojava, whose fighters will play a part in the liberation of the Islamic State Caliphate in Raqqa Syria. She explained that she grew up in a half secular and half Muslim family. She criticised the role of Islamic organisations including schools and other institutions that receive public funding. She stated that a number of people she knew had been radicalised in mosques in the UK, referring to the ideological orientation that these radicalised individuals adopted was a medieval interpretation. She argued that the Burqa has become a focus for academics, journalists and leftists as a symbol of rights, agency and choice, and a rejection of Western consumerism which she referred to as a misrepresentation that had a lot in common with Islamists such as Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. She also commented that the Burqa, Veil and Sharia courts have become politicised and are used to represent women's agency, but argued that this was tantamount to homogenisation and objectification of Muslim women, ultimately preventing them from gaining the equal legal rights that they deserve as citizens. She concluded by calling for a ban to all religious arbitration.

Yasmin Rehman began by calling for a discussion about marriage in Islam. She stated that getting and staying married are one of the biggest issues affecting Muslim diasporas, but questioned the role of Sharia courts in doing this. She stated that she no longer recognised the Islam that many Muslims are practising in the UK when comparing it as the Islam that she practises. She added that polygamy in Britain is on the rise and that more and more young men are telling their fiancées that they will not be their only wives. She stated that approaching this problem is complicated by the difficulties faced by state authorities to quantify polygamous marriages as some women may not know that their husbands have also taken additional wives.

Rehman also commented on the problems that young women who have temporary marriages with men secretly in order to have sex but don't get a divorce, and are then faced with difficulties when they come to marry again as they cannot disclose that they have already married before for fear of "honour-based" violence, but cannot re-marry without a divorce, being left in a kind of limbo. She argued that only to focus on Islamic courts or on Muslim communities (because there are converts from outside these communities) would not protect and guarantee the rights of women and concluded that some very difficult discussions were ahead.

Gina Khan opened by discussing a witness statement from a British-born Pakistani woman who was a victim of polygamy and discrimination alongside her mother. She explained that this woman and her mother had been thrown out of the house by her father who did not want another daughter. The woman's step-father after her mother's re-marriage was also polygamous without her knowing, and threatened with social exclusion, she ultimately had to accept the moving of his second wife into the house and suffered domestic violence from her husband before she died of a fatal asthma attack. This woman was also forced into an underage marriage in Kashmir Pakistan. After she returned to the UK with her two children, she sought an Islamic divorce from a Sharia judge named Anjem Choudary (an extremist preacher), who patronised her and wasted her time before her grandmother ultimately stepped in and made her husband write out an Islamic divorce.

Khan argued passionately that Imams and Mullahs who write out Islamic marriage certificates without documentation or registry for men without asking any questions must stop writing them. She stated that these were contributing to polygamous marriages and the discrimination and abuse that many women face.

Pragna Patel began by denouncing the representational politics of people who argue that those who are not of Islamic faith should not comment on the problems faced by Muslim women. She argued that she is chiefly concerned with rights and not faith. She explained that multiculturalism should not lead to moral blindness by the state, which has led to the acceptance of parallel legal systems in the public sphere. She also argued that other religious communities would begin to make the same demands a save occurred among Muslim communities, and evidenced this by noting that Sikh extremists also targeted Gurdwara's that allow for interfaith marriages.

Patel blamed austerity and cuts to legal aid have empowered parallel religious systems to emerge and act in their respective communities. We stated that within this context, abused minority women are trapped by social pressure not to leave abusive circumstances. She concluded arguing that many religious parallel legal systems that are establishing themselves are in fact against UN-sanctioned women's human rights by restricting their access to justice. Finally, she also condemned the claim of parallel legal systems to arbitrate in family matters.

Gita Sahgal started her speech by stating that there is an alternative narrative in place which overly focuses on good practice and accountability by Sharia councils, and that the opposing case arguing that these courts are inherently abusive and discriminatory to women and even some men is not receiving due attention. She argued that Islamists in Britain are preparing for government regulation by rebranding themselves as judges and removing previous fatwas from their websites so as to pass regulations.

Sahgal also commented on events in Pakistan, which does have regulated official Sharia systems has also allowed Islamist groups to use their own parallel legal bodies by classifying them as local legal systems. She commented that these groups employ very similar language to those operating in parallel systems in Britain. She concluded by praising the present example of Kurdish secularism and before that the work of Bangladeshis who as pious Muslims following their own struggle in the 1970s and established a secular constitution.

Summarised by Edward Rowe. 

 

Speaker biographies

Maryam Namazie is Co-Spokesperson for One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She hosts a weekly television programme called Bread and Roses broadcast in Iran via New Channel TV. She is on the International Advisory Board of the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom; Central Committee member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran; National Secular Society Honorary Associate; Honorary Associate of Rationalist International; Emeritus Member of the Secular Humanist League of Brazil; a Patron of London Black Atheists and Pink Triangle Trust and a member of the International Advisory Board of Feminist Dissent. She was awarded Atheist of the Year by Kazimierz Lyszczynski (2014); Journalist of the Year at the Dods Women in Public Life Awards (2013); selected one of the top 45 women of the year by Elle magazine Quebec (2007); one of 2006′s most intriguing people by DNA, awarded the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year Award (2005), amongst others.

Gina Khan was born in Birmingham to Pakistani Muslim parents. Gina is a Human Rights activist and researcher. Personal experiences prompted Gina to break her silence in 2005 by speaking out in radio debates and writing to local Birmingham newspapers following a traumatic divorce and experience of living as a lone woman and parent in Birmingham. Gina focuses on two main subjects; the rise of pro-jihad ideologies within Muslim communities and the position and status of women within those communities. Gina believes these two twin phenomena to be symptomatic of deeper problems. After speaking out against Jihadism in Birmingham, Gina and her children were forced to leave her home after it was attacked. She is currently the co-Spokesperson of One Law for All.

Houzan Mahmoud is a women’s rights campaigner, public lecturer and co-founder of Culture Project, a UK based transnational project formed recently to raise awareness about feminism and gender in Kurdistan and diaspora. She has an MA in Gender Studies from SOAS-London University. She worked as representative of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq for many years. She was born in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1973 and currently residing and working in London. Her articles were published in UK publications including The Independent and The Guardian, The Tribune, The New Statesman and others. Houzan led many campaigns internationally, including campaigns against the rape and abduction of women in Iraq, and against the imposition of Islamic sharia law in Kurdistan and Iraqi constitution. She led many other campaigns around the world against so called honour killings, and against violation of freedom of expression.

Yasmin Rehman​ is a human rights activist and researcher. She is currently working with Women’s Resource Centre as Coordinator of the pan-London Violence Against Women and Girls Consortium. Prior to this Yasmin worked with a number of women’s organisations including Welsh Women’s Aid, providing training on equalities, diversity and inclusion for higher education institutions and an independent panel member reviewing past serious case reviews.

Dr. Savin Bapir-Tardy is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of West London. Savin is a Counselling Psychologist and she conducted her doctoral research at City University into the experience of traumatic events. Savin has worked with adolescents, adults and older adults in a variety of mental health settings. Savin is currently working as a counselling psychologist within a women’s right charity (IKWRO) with victims of domestic violence, 'honour' based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Pragna Patel is a founding member of the Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism. She worked as a co-ordinator and senior case worker for SBS from 1982 to 1993 when she left to train and practice as a solicitor. In 2009 she returned to SBS as its Director. She has been centrally involved in some of SBS’ most important cases and campaigns around domestic violence, immigration and religious fundamentalism. She has also written extensively on race, gender and religion.

Gita Sahgal is a writer, journalist, film-maker and rights activist. She is currently Founder and Director of Centre for Secular Space. She was formerly Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International; she was suspended in 2010 after she was quoted criticizing Amnesty for its high-profile associations with the Islamist Moazzam Begg, the director of a campaign group called Cageprisoners. For many years she served on the board of Southall Black Sisters and was a founder of Women Against Fundamentalism and Awaaz: South Asia Watch. With Nira Yival Davis, she edited Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain ( London, 1992). Among her articles are ‘Legislating Utopia? Violence Against Women, Identities and Interventions’ in ‘The Situated Politics of Belonging. During the 1980s, she worked for a Black current affairs programme called ‘Bandung File’ on Channel 4 TV. She made two films about the Rushdie affair, ‘Hullaballoo Over Satanic Verses’ and ‘Struggle or Submission’. She has also made two programmes for Dispatches Channel 4, ‘The Provoked Wife’ on the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia and ‘The War Crimes File’ an investigation into allegations of war crimes committed by members of the Jamaat I Islami in Bangladesh in 1971.

 

Photo credit: publicweb.my3gb.com

When:

November 07, 2016 at 7pm - 9pm

Where:

Committee Room 12, House of Commons

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