The British government has launched an inquiry into the role of sharia councils in the UK and their possible discrimination against women. The review will last up to 18 months and will investigate whether British law is being broken by sharia councils.
"It will not be a review of the totality of Sharia law, which is a source of guidance for many Muslims in the UK" Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon told the media in a governmental statement announcing the review.
"Many British people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices, and benefit a great deal from the guidance they offer" Home Secretary Theresa May added. “A number of women have reportedly been victims of what appear to be discriminatory decisions taken by Sharia councils, and that is a significant concern."
She reiterated that only British law would be permitted to operate as a legal code
“There is only one rule of law in our country, which provides rights and security for every citizen." Currently sharia councils are regarded as arbitration panels and are governed by the Arbitration Act 1996.
Prof Mona Siddiqui, an Islamic theology expert, will chair the review, which will be conducted by a panel of experts, including retired judge Sir Mark Hedley and leading barristers advised by two imams.
“Professor Siddiqui, supported by a panel with a strong balance of academic, religious and legal expertise, will help us better understand whether and the extent to which Sharia law is being misused or exploited and make recommendations to the Government on how to address this” May explained.
A campaign group called "One Law For All" has been lobbying against sharia councils and other religious arbitration panels in the UK, supported by a network of prominent feminist and secularist activists and organizations from different backgrounds. Their petition demands "an end to all Sharia courts and religious tribunals on the basis that they work against and not for equality and human rights" and demands that "the law be amended so that all religious tribunals are
banned from operating within and outside of the legal system."
Baroness Caroline Cox has also led a drive to regulate sharia courts, pushing a bill which would imprison people who falsely claimed legal powers while operating sharia councils and requiring such bodies to inform women of their rights under British law when adjudicating sharia marriages.
She expressed her reservations about the review, telling The Telegraph that action is needed now.
""My reservation is that it won’t get to the root of the problem" she said, adding "a lot of Muslim women I know say that the men in their communities just laugh at this proposed investigation, that they will go underground so the investigation will have to be very robust."