04/07/2018 12:34 BST | Updated 04/07/2018 12:35 BST

The UK's First Female Sharia Judge: 'I Am Championing Women's Rights'

Dr Amra Bone wants to encourage more women into Sharia law.

She's a lone figure in a world dominated by men, but Britain's first female Sharia court judge isn't daunted by the task ahead of her.

Instead, Dr Amra Bone says her trailblazing path will inspire other women to follow. The former head teacher and university chaplain sits on the panel of judges at the Sharia Council at Birmingham's Central Mosque, one of Europe's biggest.

It's her job to rule on Islamic divorce hearings, a role traditionally reserved for bearded elders who have spent their lives studying the Quran.

Not that Bone is any less qualified than her male counterparts. The 45-year-old was invited to join the panel because of her unrivalled expertise in the complex field of Islamic jurisprudence.

"My specialisms include Quranic exegesis and ethics with an emphasis on Sharia and gender," says Bone, who graduated from Birmingham University, where she also completed her MA and PhD.

Dr Amra Bone

"I was born in Birmingham and attended school and college in the city.

"I've always been involved in my local community and I spent five years as a leader at a girls' youth club, particularly working with Muslim girls.

"That got me started in championing women's rights within my community and eventually lead to me being appointed Sharia judge 13 years ago."

She soon became one of the country's most respected Sharia judges. "As far as I know, I'm still the only female Sharia court judge in the UK. But I'm really hopeful that will soon change," she says.

"I've generally had a good reaction from within the wider Muslim community and I can share a lot of positive experiences with women who might want to follow my path."

Darren Staples / Reuters
Inside Birmingham's Central Mosque

Muslim arbitration tribunals, known as Sharia courts, have existed in the United Kingdom since 1996, when the Arbitration Act started to allow for different religious laws to be applied in cases such as divorce.

Based on the Quran and the Sunnah, the two main Islamic texts that deal with how Muslims should lead their lives, Sharia covers everything from diet and hygiene to bigger issues such as crime and relationships.

It is estimated that there are as many as 85 Sharia courts in Britain, mainly issuing rulings in divorce hearings when the couple have had only an Islamic marriage, rather than a legally registered civil ceremony.

Though allowed by the Arbitration Act, the courts' rulings are not recognised by the UK legal system. But the scholars' judgments carry the required moral and cultural weight to grant a divorce before God, according to Sharia law.

Ayesha Khan, a 42-year-old mother from Birmingham who was granted a divorce by the Sharia court in Birmingham, said: "If I went to an English court, my ex-husband and wider family would not have accepted its rulings because we did not have an English civil ceremony.

"But no one in my community can say anything if the decision has been made by a Sharia court, because that's our ultimate authority."

For many devout Muslims in the UK, there exist two parallel marriage systems, which has grown in recent years as younger Muslims below 30 become more religious, Bone says.

She firmly believes that Sharia courts can empower Muslim women and provide a vital service.

"If they have not had a registered marriage and only an Islamic one, then they have no redress if things go wrong apart from a Sharia court. What are they supposed to do and turn to?"

In British Sharia courts, 90 percent of the petitioners are female and almost all cases involve divorce.

According to the Home Office, there are about 100,000 British Muslim couples who are not legally married as they have only undergone an Islamic wedding, or nikah, and failed to register their marriages civilly.

Bone stresses that there is no compulsion for women to use the voluntary service offered by the councils and, for any financial or custody issues, her council automatically refers women to the civil courts.

She added: "In Islam, women are not treated as dependent, but as equal. So, we treat them equally."

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