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Sharia sensibilities 

Protecting the rights of women who need help must include respect for their religious practices

The blizzard of controversy that has attended the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks about the "inevitability" of parts of Islamic law being introduced in Britain has thrown a rare spotlight on this country's existing sharia councils.

The erroneous caricature of sharia as synonymous with stoning or flogging is a million miles from the reality in Britain. The councils' judgments have no statutory basis in law, with participants abiding by rulings voluntarily, and the vast majority of cases concern relatively unremarkable divorce applications.

I spent several months at one such Islamic court - the same east London sharia council that Dr Rowan Williams cited in his speech - making a documentary film, Divorce: Sharia Style, about the people who use the court and the sheiks who preside over it. It was immediately plain who is most directly affected by sharia law: more than 90% of the cases involved women seeking divorce.

It seemed clear to me that most of these Muslim women were committed to using the sharia system, whether or not it had any recognition in national law. Many of us may feel distinctly uncomfortable supporting a system that has no grounding in modern civil rights, but whatever one's stance on sharia in Britain, it is surely crucial to ask what sharia means for the people upon whom it has the greatest practical impact.

The process of female divorce (khula) women go through can seem unfair, given that a man may divorce his wife without providing a reason, so long as witnesses are present to observe his decree. A woman, on the other hand, must apply to the council and defend the application in front of the sheikhs, as well as her husband if he chooses to oppose the divorce.

But a woman need offer no more elaborate reason than her dislike for her husband, and if she remains steadfast she will eventually be granted the divorce, even if the process can sometimes take years.

Women do not have the same rights afforded to them under sharia law as they do under the British legal system. Their testimony still carries only half the weight of a man's. And an all-male, overworked, underfunded sharia council does not make a welcoming place for many of the women who approach it.

And yet for all that, a great number of women who feel religiously or culturally inclined still prefer a religious divorce to a civil one. Indeed, to outlaw the sharia process would make it nigh on impossible for some women to get a divorce of any kind whatsoever. People who go to the council do so because they need religious guidance - and until the state can provide that they will find it elsewhere. Marriages or divorces that have not been given statutory recognition can lead to a host of abuses and confusion, but for people of faith, the overriding priority is that they are sanctioned in the eyes of God.

The laws and rights of sharia seem archaic to most people in British society. The volume of media coverage following the archbishop's speech suggests that there is not just misapprehension and bemusement, but outright hostility. For many, there is an instinct to fight for the rights of the women that are perceived to be undermined or abused by Islamic law. That is an admirable instinct. But those women who need our help most will not seek our assistance if we refuse to take seriously their religious and cultural preferences and practices.

· Ayesha Khan reported for the documentary Divorce: Sharia Style, directed by Masood Khan. For more information see


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