Elham Manea’s new book “Women and Sharia Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK” (I. B. Tauris, May 2016) provides considerable evidence to show how Sharia courts violate the fundamental principles of protection, equality and non-discrimination and documents the harmful and even life threatening consequences for minority women.
Women’s rights campaigners aim to raise enough money to send a copy of Manea’s book to every MP and Peer in order to highlight the adverse consequences of Sharia courts on women’s rights and lives and facilitate the dismantling of parallel legal systems in Britain.
This is particularly timely given the government’s upcoming inquiry into the courts.
your donation will get this game-changing book into the hands of those who need it most. It will provide policy makers with the information needed to do the right thing to ensure that the same principles of human rights, equality before the law, duty of care, due diligence and the rule of law are applicable to all British citizens.
The law and not religion is the key basis for securing justice for all citizens. #OneLawforAll
Dr. Elham Manea is of dual nationalities, Yemeni and Swiss. She is a political scientist specialized in the Arab Middle East, a writer, and a human rights advocate. She has published academic and non-fiction books in English, German, and Arabic in addition to two novels in Arabic. She has also participated in high profile human rights cases in the Middle East and North Africa. She works at the Political Science Institute, University of Zurich, as a Privatdozentin (compares to associate professor in the American System) and as a consultant for Swiss government agencies and international human rights and non-government organizations.
Here Elham Manea explains her book:
It all started with a media controversy in Switzerland. My Book, Women and Shari’a Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK, is its direct result.
The catalyst was an article by a Professor in Social Anthropology in the December 2008 bulletin of the Swiss Federal Commission against Racism. In it, he suggested that Switzerland should introduce a weak legal pluralism, i.e. allow some groups, from different cultural or religious backgrounds, to resort to their own laws in specific areas of jurisprudence. He argued in an interview that the presence of migrants from ‘very remote cultural circles’ demands this legal shift: He said: “The cultural distance is too great. And however much these migrants also assimilate, there always remains a difference; also to our legal system.” He then proposed the introduction of sharia and other religious courts, which would deal especially with civil matters and also with offences and assaults. Of course, human rights should be fully maintained in a Swiss Sharia court”.
As a female Arab academic who has extensively researched the conditions for both genders in the Arab MENA region, as a women’s rights activist who has been involved in various campaigns for gender justice, and as a woman who has seen the dire consequences of the application of sharia law, I knew all too well what that suggestion would entail.
The next week, the same Sunday newspaper that interviewed him published my response to Giordano’s suggestion in the opinion section with the title ‘Islamic Law in Switzerland would be devastating’.
It was this debate that led me to research the topic further and write my book.
Because Britain was often cited (at conferences and in literature) as a ‘good example’ of weak legal pluralism, I decided to research the British case. So I went to Islamic sharia councils and Muslim arbitration tribunals in various British cities, and met their leading sheiks, including the only woman on their panels. I also interviewed experts and lawyers, and activists in civil society and women’s rights groups, especially from within the Muslim communities, in addition to politicians who are pleading for a reform of this ‘model’.
The more I researched the more I realized that Swiss Professor’s suggestion is just the tip of an iceberg. It is an expression of a paradigm of thinking – one that dominated the postcolonial post-modernist discourses for far too long —I call it the essentialist paradigm.
Four features characterize the Essentialist Paradigm:
- It combines multiculturalism as a political process with the policy of legal pluralism, dividing people along cultural, religious, and ethnic lines, setting them apart, and placing them in parallel legal enclaves.
- It perceives rights from a group perspective—the group has the rights, not the individuals within it—and it insists that each group has a collective identity and culture, an essential identity and culture, which should be protected and perpetuated even if doing so violates the rights of individuals within the group.
- It is dominated by a cultural relativist approach to rights, and argues that rights (and other social practices, values, and moral rules) are culturally determined.
- And it is very much haunted by a white man’s burden, one that is formed by a strong sense of shame and guilt over the Western colonial and imperial past and/ a paternalistic desire to protect minorities or people from former colonies. It is a mindset that perceives the other, whether a member of a minority group or an entire Third World country, as the oppressed, and human rights as the tools imposed by the Western oppressor. It considers those who are fighting for universal human rights in their own societies as not being authentic representatives of their own countries, and in the process it ignores or justifies dire human rights violations committed in the name of group’s rights or cultural and religious rights.
It is the essentialist paradigm.
Women and Shari’a Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK is a critique of this paradigm of thinking.
This is also a book about the context within which this discourse is taking place. Often, these western academics have become the unwitting allies of Islamists who propagate an ideology of political Islam that seeks to essentialize Islam, who claim to be the sole group speaking for Muslims. They insist that they be treated as a ‘homogenous group’, and assert that human rights is a ‘Western imposition’; in the process they violate these rights with impunity. What the western academics seem not to notice is the totalitarian content within the ideology of political Islam and its aim of oppressive theocratic political domination.
Both types of essentialists are arguing that Islamic law should be introduced into the Western legal systems in the name of multiculturalism. They insist it is just one instrument of conflict resolution out of many; that it is voluntarily; that they only support it with safeguards that ensure respect for human rights, especially for women’s rights. They will also tell you, that if a member of a religious minority does not want to be ruled by these laws, all he/she has to do is to opt and leave the community. Choice is very central to this argument.
Absent in their discourse is the actual experience of legal pluralism in ‘non-Western countries’ and their negative consequences. In fact, my research has shown that once the state starts to situate rights within the frame of a group rather than within the individual, not only the likely outcome will be segregation, inequality, and discrimination. But also a system of stratified citizenry and double discrimination syndrome.
Absent as well is clarity about the type of Islamic law being used in this ‘method of conflict resolution’. I define sharia by the way it is being implemented in Islamic states and within Muslim family laws. I see it as a selection from the corpus of legal opinions of jurists developed over the course of Islamic history, especially between the seventh and tenth centuries.
Looking at sharia from this perspective will highlight its problematic nature, for we are not considering its theoretical potential to provide justice. What we are in fact looking at is its actual implementation and hence its obvious limitations and how it contravenes modern concepts of human rights. What matters is how it is being interpreted and used today, not how it could be used a century from now.
The type of Sharia laws implemented in British Islamic Sharia Councils/Tribunals contravenes concepts of gender equality and human rights with impunity. I can talk more on this if you wish, but for the moment, suffice to say it is a type that gives the father the right to annual the marriage of his daughter, if she married against his wishes, on the basis of Kafaa principle (the groom should be equal in status). And make no mistake, this is not a theoretical examples. It is a rule accepted and practiced by some of these courts as my interviews with their sheiks have shown.
The social context within which this law is being implemented is not considered at all. We are talking about closed communities where both young women and men are subjected to a suffocating social control. This makes an exit ‘option’ and exercise of choice simply unrealistic. Why? As the report ‘When Legal Worlds Overlap’ argued so accurately, the question is how far the ‘free option’ is a real one. An exist option: a) requires the presence of a welcoming community outside; b) presumes autonomy and access to other resources which many individuals lack; and c) ignores the fact that pressure to conform to ‘tradition’ is usually strong and may also block one’s exit. Ultimately, assessing the extent of individuals’ ‘free choice’ in such cases can be next to impossible.
Absent in this discourse is an awareness of the role played by political Islam in promoting Islamic law in non-Islamic societies. There is a political dimension that should be included in this whole discussion. Indeed, my research in Britain has revealed this dimension in stark clarity. On the one hand, specific South Asian religious movements have been working since the fifties within South Asian communities to separate ‘Muslims’ from outside world and create a supreme Islamic identity. This in turn set the stage for a strategy promoted by supporters of political Islam to then present their own Islamist demands as the demands of all Muslims and t Islam. The two groups share similar aims of creating an Islamist state, implementing Sharia law, and the supremacy of Muslims and Islam. The realization of such aims will not lead to more integration but rather to extremism, confrontation, and political instability. My research has shown that members of these two Islamic/Islamist groups often control British Sharia Courts.
In short, this book Women and Shari’a Law: The Impact of Legal Pluralism in the UK is both a critique of the essentialists’ discourse and a defence of the universality of human rights and secularism.
One law for all is not only a slogan. It is a guarantee for equal treatment and the protection of the weakest in our societies. Protecting citizens (especially women and minorities) on an equal basis requires a secular single legal order based on respect for civil and human rights. Simple and fair.
For more information on the book, please see Elham Manea’s talk at a 30 April conference in London on Sharia Law, Legal Pluralism and Access to Justice.