As the Home Office under Theresa May launches an investigation into so-called sharia courts, I'm reminded of an event I attended at the end of April this year. Some of the most influential feminists from the UK's minority communities gathered together to discuss the implications of the growth of so-called 'sharia' law, whether operating as arbitration tribunals, unofficial courts within mosques, or as specialist sections within reputable law firms. These all claim to help Muslims to live in accordance with the tenets of their faith. This 'shariafication' of Muslim life began with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1980s. Fundamentalism attempts to overwrite the civilisational heritage of one of the world's great faiths with a fixation on petty rules and regulations. Thus, so-called 'sharia' law has been presented as if it were an expression of God's will, rather than being the product of a particular legal culture, developed within the political context of the 7th - 10th centuries.
As Dr Elham Manea explains in her new book, the focus of this legal culture is less on providing justice than maintaining male power within the family. From the insistence that adult women have 'guardians', the acceptance of child marriage and polygamy (for men only, of course), the refusal to allow women to marry outside their group and the limited provisions of property to women, classical 'sharia' is the product of a society with very specific - and very limited - roles for women. In practice, this is contrary to the principles of women's human rights. Dr Manea was vehement on this point, pointing out that the same verse of the Quran that 'sharia' judges use to justify polygamy also allows men to keep slaves. 'And shall we have slaves?' she asked, eyes flashing with anger.
Polygamy has rocketed over the past 20 years, with some men taking multiple wives to demonstrate their piety. It can even serve as a religiously 'legitimate' means of trafficking girls and young women into sexual slavery. Within the context of 'sharia' law as it is currently understood, even those 'sharia judges' who attempt to do their best for women are doing so against the grain of a tradition that discriminates against them. Those 'judges' who are prejudiced against women have very little to restrain them.
Having more than one legal system running is not a sign of a healthy or inclusive society. It is just one less thing that people have in common. It is the very essence of discrimination to provide different standards for justice for people based on aspects of their identity, whether this be their gender, their ethnicity - or their religion - and this goes just as much for other legal systems operating in the UK, such as the Beth Din as it does for the 'sharia' courts. The reason for segregation between communities has often been laid at the feet of Muslims themselves, rather than the failure of successive governments to treat Muslim citizens as individuals, rather than members of religious voting blocs. This runs from allowing exclusive faith schools, to the persistence in dealing with conservative community leaders presumed to be representatives of the 'community'.
This also occurs within a context the government has gutted legal aid. The poorest members of our society have been diverted into cheaper arbitration and reconciliation services. This has created a two-tier system where justice is only available for the wealthy. This creates a double pressure on Muslim women - unable to access the formal legal system due to the costs, and under pressure within the community to be 'good Muslims' and use so-called 'sharia' services - even though this will cost them their own rights. And so, an unfair system which places justice outside of the reach of Muslim women is enfolded within another unfair system which places justice outside the reach of the poor.
While religious fundamentalism is treated as a serious social problem because it has the potential to lead to rare but devastating acts of terrorism against the public, with a variety of programmes and interventions to address it, everyday violence against women occurring in the name of fundamentalism has long been neglected. In order to save the public purse, services for women have been lost in reductions in welfare, driven by Tory ideology. Left to the mercies of their communities, Muslim women and children remain in abusive households, and face losing their financial security over issues like child maintenance and inheritance through the judgments of 'sharia' courts. The state has a duty to protect all its citizens. Until it can ensure that some of the most vulnerable members have access to justice, then it is failing in this duty to provide equality before the law and access to justice. And equality means one law for all, accessible to everyone.