Jan 12 2012 by Hannah Bewley, Harrow Observer
A CAMPAIGNER is trying to help a controversial bill through Parliament because she believes it would encourage greater equality for Muslim women.
Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, is concerned about Muslim women who don’t know about alternatives to Sharia law – the Islamic legal system followed by some Muslims in the UK.
The Wealdstone resident has been advising crossbencher Baroness Caroline Cox on her Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, which would make it an offence for anyone falsely claiming or implying that Sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law in this country.
Ms Kazi claims the controversial bill, which has been opposed by some parts of the Muslim community, would give Muslim women greater clarification on their rights.
Ms Kazi, a law graduate of the London School of Economics, said: “There is a gap in the system for Muslim women due to the prevalence of Sharia councils.
“They don’t have any legal power and are completely informal so very hard to regulate and they rule on things such as divorce in Muslim communities. We want to educate women so they know what their rights are.”
The campaigner said she is concerned about the number of women who don’t have marriages registered under civil law as some Muslims have the religious ceremony of Nikah, which is not valid as a legal marriage under UK law, therefore don’t have the same legal rights if the couple decides to separate.
The former student of Park High School in Stanmore and Harrow Weald College said: “Sharia tribunals operate under a clause in the Arbitration Act 1996 and, as with all arbitration, their outcomes are legally binding (as long as all parties agree to this).
“Unlike these tribunals, Sharia councils have no legal status and could potentially be set up in someone’s front room. Problems arise when they falsely claim a legal status that they do not have, and this kind of posturing is exactly what the Arbitration Bill seeks to criminalise.”
She added: “It is a pioneering proposal, because the onus is on the Sharia councils to clarify for existing and potential clients that their decisions have no legal weight, before any mediation can take place.”
A Freedom of Information request by the Observer showed there were 870 places of Muslim worship in the country in 2009 and, as of February 2011, 208 had applied to be registered to carry out Nikah marriage ceremonies.
However, is difficult to identify how many of the Muslim couples who undertake the Nikah ceremony also complete civil proceedings because religion is not documented at the register office.
Ms Kazi said there are many other issues the British Muslims for Secular Democracy is trying to address and it has an open dialogue with other faith groups so they can work together for a more ‘inclusive society’.
Ms Kazi said: “I am interested in meeting people of all faiths and seeing how we can help each other.
“There may be problems which one has faced which can be solved with a solution from a different point of view.
“I have attended many inter-faith sessions and it is a safe place where people can discuss anything. It is high time we had some debate in the Muslim community.”
By talking about all of these issues, Ms Kazi, who also works with Searchlight, an anti-fascist educational trust, said she hopes other Muslim women will be encouraged to be more open about equality issues and that if the bill is passed by parliament, it will put an end to inequality in arbitration processes.
The Federation of Muslim Organisations backs the bill as they say it would offer greater protection for vulnerable people in society.
Suleman Nagdi, a spokesman for the federation, said: “We welcome any bill that would protect the most vulnerable in society and especially anyone who is being denied their fundamental rights in this country.
“Any organisation which opposes this would be likely to be operating behind closed doors and so would not come out against it.”
Mr Nagdi continued: “Sharia law is an advice system which both parties enter into voluntarily.
“I have not seen any evidence of Sharia councils denying people of rights, but I have heard reports.
“If people believe the councils have legal powers and if they are putting pressure on people to forego their legal rights this needs to be stopped and for them to be given their due rights.”
Mr Nagdi confirmed that many Muslim couples choose to have only the Nikah religious ceremony and not the civil proceedings as well.
“Society should not be telling people what to do as, again, it is their personal choice what kind of ceremony they have,” he said. “There are certain protections which people are afforded with a civil marriage, but we should not be forcing people into doing this.”
The Observer contacted the Islamic Sharia Council but it was unable to comment before we went to press.
l Tell us what you think? Email email@example.com.