According to this week's Sunday Times, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal has set up five Sharia courts throughout the United Kingdom. These courts hear solely civil cases, including divorce, domestic violence, and inheritance cases. The Sharia courts have been classified as arbitration tribunals under the same provision of the 1996 Arbitration Act used by Jewish Beth Din courts, which have resolved civil cases in Britain for over 100 years. As long as "both parties in the dispute agree to give it the power to rule on their case", the decision of an arbitration tribunal is legally binding and enforceable through British county courts or the High Court.
While Muslim women who choose to use these Sharia courts for family law disputes are surely capable adults entitled to make their own decisions, the track record of the courts on women's rights thus far is concerning. For example, in a recent inheritance case, the court divided a man's estate by giving twice as much to his two sons as it did to his three daughters. And in six recent domestic violence cases, the court ordered the husbands to take anger management classes and participate in mentoring with community elders; the women withdrew their complaints from the police, who stopped investigations.
Can these courts be reconciled with British and European laws protecting gender equality? Given that participation requires consent of both parties, it may be difficult to find a plaintiff to challenge the courts' unequal treatment of women. Perhaps a more fruitful course is suggested by Zareen Roohi Ahmed, the chief executive of the British Muslim Forum, an umbrella organization for mosques in the UK. Noting that sharia courts in Britain are still poorly organised, she proposes that the government support professionalization of the courts, including "female involvement . . . on the decision-making panels . . . and a wider range of scholars and academics involved to put more thought into making the rules and regulations applicable to today's society." It's a thorny problem, to be sure, but by engaging with these courts rather than shutting them down, the British government might, in the end, protect the rights of more women.
Cross-posted on Concurring Opinions