Baroness Cox is a Crossbencher in the House of Lords and author of the new Bow Group pamphlet, ‘A Parallel World – Confronting the abuse of many Muslim women in Britain today’.
Yesterday Theresa May, the Home Secretary, set out a number of anti-extremism proposals which she hopes to bring in after the general election.
Whatever we may think of her specific recommendations, I think it is fair to say that all of us – including those of different faith traditions – welcome the broader commitment to counter the threat of Islamist extremism.
But somewhere in the middle of this ongoing (and necessary) debate about how best to enshrine our rights and freedoms, two crucial issues are being overlooked: the suffering of women oppressed by religiously-sanctioned gender discrimination; and a rapidly-developing alternative quasi-legal system which undermines the fundamental principle of one law for all.
More specifically, there are growing concerns about the application of established Sharia law principles, which threaten to destabilise even the most basic freedoms of women in our country today.
The kind of discrimination I am referring to can take many forms, such as inequality in access to divorce (for men often so easy it is effectively free and unconditional); polygamy (practiced by men who have multiple ‘wives’ and numerous children); discriminatory child custody policies and inheritance laws; and the sanctioning of domestic violence.
I have had the opportunity to sit with oppressed and abused women from communities which foster this kind of discrimination, here in Britain, and wept with them as they told their stories.
In an effort to make their voices heard, I have been able to share some alarming cases in a new report, published yesterday: ‘A Parallel World: Confronting the abuse of many Muslim women in Britain today’.
The report’s recommendations can by no means remedy all of the sensitive issues involved, but they do offer an important opportunity for redress. At the very least I hope that each testimony will promote a far more wide-ranging investigation to ascertain the scale of suffering endured.
While many will therefore welcome Theresa May’s commitment yesterday to conduct an independent review of Sharia Courts, it is imperative that such measures are not so broadly defined that they catch innocent behaviour or impact on people’s religious liberties.
It is of equal importance that such investigations do not fall at the first hurdle, as appears to have happened with previous, similar Government-led reviews. Without powers to subpoena witnesses, any independent review – no matter how well intentioned – will be another lost opportunity.
It is with this in mind that I am calling on the Government to launch a judge-led inquiry to determine the extent to which discriminatory Sharia law principles are being applied within the UK.
I will also be seeking to re-introduce my Private Members’ Bill – the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill – in the next parliamentary session. It already has strong support from across the political spectrum in the House of Lords as well as from Muslim women’s groups and other organisations concerned with the suffering of vulnerable women.
The Government’s response will be a litmus test of the extent to which it genuinely upholds the principle of equality before the law or is so dominated by the fear of ‘giving offence’ that it will continue to allow these women to suffer in ways which would make our suffragettes turn in their graves.