Theresa May’s review of sharia courts has been branded a “whitewash” before it has even begun, with more than 200 individuals and human rights groups signing an open letter urging her to dismantle the panel chosen to oversee the inquiry. They claim that by appointing an Islamic scholar as chair and placing two imams in advisory roles, the panel’s ability to make an impartial assessment of how religious arbitration is used to the detriment of women’s rights will be seriously compromised.
Signatories include Gita Sahgal, the director of Centre for Secular Space and a former head of Amnesty International’s gender unit, the playwright Julia Pascal and the Iranian-born human rights activist, Maryam Namazie. They say the “narrow remit” of the review, which
starts collecting evidence this month, has a misplaced focus on seeking out “best practice” among sharia councils rather than questioning their very existence. While there are three legal experts on the panel, critics claim the role of chair should have be given to a judge
rather than a theologian and that female advisors or those that advocate for them should be included.
Ms Namazie told The Independent: “The law and not religion should be the basis of justice for citizens. We are calling for an impartial judge-led inquiry that places human rights, not theology, at the heart of the investigation.”
Sharia councils have no enforcement powers and operate on a voluntary basis with consent of both parties. Sharia law does not supersede UK law. Either party, if dissatisfied should be able to seek redress in the UK courts. However some women who attend sharia councils are not aware of their rights or are cowed by community or religious pressures.
The review, announced in May as part of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy and due to be completed by 2017, is to be chaired by Mona Siddiqui, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh and a regular presenter of the Thought for the Day slot on Radio 4’s Today programme. Family lawyer Anne-Marie Hutchinson, barrister Sam Momtaz, and retired high court judge, Sir Mark Hedley will also sit on the panel.