The use of Sharia councils in the United Kingdom to settle disputes using Islamic religious law has been criticised for discriminating against women. With rare access, the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme in a report, looked at what takes place inside one of such councils.
“Is it not possible to forget all the things he has done to you?” one of three Islamic scholars asks Yasmeenah — not her real name — inside a room of Birmingham Central Mosque.
Yasmeenah has been in an arranged marriage since the age of 15, and says her husband has emotionally and physically abused her throughout the relationship.
She has come to this Sharia council – one of an estimated 30 established councils across the UK, often referred to as Sharia “courts” – in the hope the scholars will grant her a divorce from her Islamic marriage, or nikah.
She dismisses the idea that she can overlook the past and continue the relationship.
“But he loves you very much,” the scholar continues, having spoken to her husband previously that day. “Yes, but this is not enough,” she replies.
“Something makes me afraid of him and scared of him. If I see him, suddenly all my body starts shaking,” she had explained shortly before.
The scholars listen to her case and, when they feel they have enough information, ask Yasmeenah to leave the room to allow them time to deliberate.
She returns nervously, but it is good news – the scholars have unanimously decided the marriage should be terminated with immediate effect, saying they are sad to hear what she has been through.
“When they announced [their decision] I felt that something happened that I had wanted for years,” she explains, overjoyed. “I’m really surprised, because they cared about my emotions. I thought, ‘Finally I’ve got my freedom.’”
The courts’ rulings, such as this one, are not recognised by the UK system, and these councils have no legal powers – although many of the women who claim they have been abused also go to the police.
The scholars’ judgements, however, can carry moral and cultural weight by ending the divorce before God.
“If I went to an English court [my ex-husband] would say, ‘Where is their right to decide about my life?’ Now he can’t say anything because the decision has been made using Sharia law, and we all believe in that,” she explains.