This report will deal with the issue of violence against women as experienced by the Muslim community and will particularly look at the experiences of Domestic abuse. It will also provide an analysis of how community-based remedies, in the form of Shariah Councils, have fared in supporting women in their choices and practicalities in leading a life free from violence and abuse.
Recommendations and next steps will be made to improve the experiences of women and families who use Shariah Councils. It is hope that through such community structures, including Mosques and community leadership, a more transparent and supportive environment can be created for the betterment of the community and all its members.
I would also like to note that the use of terms like community seems to be the easiest way to describe the collective attitude and behaviour of the majority of Muslims in the UK but one is acutely aware of how problematic this term is. It does nothing to describe the diversity of the community whether it be linguistic, cultural, theological or regional and how these factors impact on the experiences of women, Shariah Councils and discourse in this area generally.
Gender, equality and the ‘ community’
Muslim and ethnic minority women in particular are rooted to their communities and families. Often the ethical and moral compass or measure of a family and the community is placed solely on women and girls. Hence there are certain expectations and traditions that women must adhere to in order to gain the trust, respect and protection of the family and community at large. 'Straying' away from such norms and expectations (by leaving a violent partner for example) often costs a woman her life. That is not to say that Muslim and (BME) women do not lead fulfilling, inspirational and very high powered lives but what is important to highlight that making choices outside of those offered by the community is not something that is valued but rather frowned up on within minority communities. In addition, many women have the added responsibility of looking after and caring for older members of the family which makes dealing with family discord and finding practical solutions to it even harder.
It is in this context and under the guise of regulating family life and family relationships, that Muslim women come up against prejudice, discrimination and often injustice both from within their communities but also from mainstream society which has often stereotyped their identity and experience as that of inherently oppressed or inferior, also known as the double bind effect.
This was particularly highlighted as an issue by Muslim women who were interviewed for the purposes of evaluating a domestic violence intervention Project in London in November 2012.
Language as a barrier for many women is another factor that not only adds to the disempowerment and restriction of their access to support. It also can also lead to a reinforcement of the ‘oppressed woman’ stereotype. Therefore, Muslim women with no English language skills can be imprisoned within their community in this context.
Islam and Islamic law is often used as a way of regulating and checking women's behaviour and conduct. This is done both informally within a community and familial relations but also administered formally by the community in the context of family courts also known as Shariah Councils.
Often Shariah councils are the last resort for women to seek help and support within the community if other informal channels have not been successful. Women often ask for advice and assistance in matters relating to marriage, child rearing, child custody, divorce, domestic abuse etc. There are a lot of positive experiences of women who have used Shariah Councils and successfully gained retribution or have had successful outcomes to their disputes; unfortunately such examples tend to be the exception rather than the norm. This does illustrate however, the potential that such community structures have in seeking justice and equity for women.
Challenges and concerns
Interviews with Muslim women, informal conversations with Imams and judges that sit on Shariah Councils have identified a number of areas where improvements need to be made.
It is clear that there is significant lack of training of Shariah Council members on issues relating to confidentiality, child protection, vulnerable adult policies and a general lack in knowledge of the law regarding issue such as domestic abuse, child contact, health and safety etc.
This gap in knowledge and training can have disastrous consequences on a family, in a worst case scenario, leading to exclusion from the community, family, homelessness, injury and even death. It is imperative that Imams, judges and all working on Shariah Councils or in mosques are provided with training in relation to these issues particularly child protection policies that have specified clear responsibilities to all those who come in contact with children and families. In addition, training in domestic violence and abuse is essential as in many cases women do not seek advice and support until very late into their abusive relationship if at all. Training around safety and confidentiality will ensure a more nuanced understanding of factors, like harm, risk of leaving, being found or stalked by the abuser etc. Statistics indicated that women and their children are most likely to be harmed or murdered at the point of leaving a violent relationship. So if an Imam or Judge inadvertently encourages a woman to return to a violent home, in the spirit of family unity or discloses to her husband/family her whereabouts after she has left he is likely to be putting this woman and her children in serious harm.
The Wider Context: Mainstream and specialist support
Another area of improvement is the lack of understanding of the role played by different statutory agency when it comes to family disputes or problems. Agencies such as social services; police; housing; immigration, the British courts and criminal system including the Probation Service and the Crown Prosecution Service are all agencies that work with families in crisis and in particular vulnerable women.
It is clear that there is complete disconnection and no contact between Mosques/Shariah Councils with agencies mentioned above, particularly NGOs and charities whose role is to assist families, women and children. In many cases a good connection between a Shariah Council, mosque and a generic as well as specialist service providers (like projects working with BME women specifically) would vastly improve outcomes for families.
It is unclear the extent to which these community structures are aware of the legal landscape in regards to family law and practice. Are judge and Imams aware that Forced Marriage is now a criminal offence (2012) as is Female Genital Mutilation which has been illegal in this country since 1985. In addition The Children Acts of 1989 and 2004 establish the key principle of welfare of the child as a paramount consideration.
However, there is real fear and apprehension by Imams and community leaders of involving outside agencies. Understandably, there is an automatic assumption that if help and support was sought from the above agencies an automatic breakdown of the family would ensue with children taken away or one or both parents placed in police custody. This fear and lack of trust can be the result of ignorance of how systems and procedures operate within the police or social services as well as fear of racist and islamophobic treatment. Any family breakdown that may be perceived as a result of working with an Imam or Shariah Council would place those involved in a very difficult position resulting in the breakdown of trust and authority of the Imam and Shariah Council.
Correspondingly there is some suspicion, again fuelled by ignorance and fear, by secular and mainstream agencies of religious and community organisation that deal with family matters. Often these community organisations like the mosque or Shariah council are perceived to be perpetrators of injustice and maintaining the abuse experienced by women and their children. There is no doubt that there have been problems with the rulings and procedures conducted by Shariah Councils but to assume that all are bastions of gender discrimination and prejudice is unfair and untruthful. The vacuum created by the lack of engagement of mosques and Shariah Council has left plenty of space for those due to personal experience or an ideological perspective to speak on behalf of Muslim women as their representatives and paint a very one sided picture of religious institutions and their treatment of women and families.
Transparency, gender representation and governance
Shariah councils are made up exclusively of men and on some occasions men who are very senior in age with little cultural contact with mainstream society. Some may even be foreign born and raised and therefore cannot appreciate the complications of living as a couple or a family in a modern, westernised urban setting. This lack in cultural capital can greatly influence the understanding and interpretation of family relationships and how Islamic teachings can be used to assist rather than punish or penalise victims.
The majority of Shariah Councils seem to be inaccessible to outsiders and lack transparency. They are only as good as the people who make them up. How are members of the Shariah Council chosen to be involved? Are they elected? What is the criteria? Are there any qualifications or essential experience needed? Is there room for women to be involved? Can they represent the diversity of the community and how to do they ensure accountability? Do they come under pressure from influences other than interpretation of Islamic texts and laws? Are decisions based totally on the merits of the case rather than familiar, community ties or connections? If so then how is this ensured?
This lack of standardised procedure within sects let alone across denominations raises many questions and for some may give the perception that such Councils are less about professionalism, justice and equity and more about regulating the community and ensuring compliance with the existing status quo. Also it is not clear if all explain to women, mothers and their children or those who come to the Sharia Council for support, advice or otherwise the procedure of what happens in a Shariah Council or the possible outcomes or what support is on offer at initial contact with the Shariah Council and its members.
In addition, the question of how effective such institutions are needs to be asked. Public perceptions are that Shariah Councils have extensive powers to transform someone's life but to what extent can rulings by Shariah Councils can be enforced? This is the case in many domestic violence cases where abusers often ignore Shariah Council rulings against them.
Of particular relevance is the ideological world view of Shariah Councils and the individuals that make them up. In many of the mediation and Shariah Council rulings or meetings the emphasis is on keeping the family together rather than ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the children and their mother. Hence a balance needs to be struck in terms of trying to ensure unnecessary breakdown of family ties but also not compromising on safety of family members especially if one member of the family is abusing, harming and hurting others.
Having outlined a few observations regarding the current status and perceptions of Shariah Councils vis-à-vis family discord and in particular the perceived experiences of women when they come into contact with Shariah Councils, the following recommendations are outlined. They are by no means comprehensive but provide a skeletal framework from which extensive and innovative work can be carried out to ensure that these very important and valuable community institutions can operate in a modern 21 century environment and are cognisant of the pressures and joys experienced by families and women in a multi-cultural British society where mainstream values of equality, freedom of speech and democracy are aspired to every day.
Regular and accredited training to Imams and members of Shariah councils on issues relating to domestic violence, forced marriage and honour-based crime. Perhaps this can be rolled out as part of Imam training courses that are taught in various Dar-ul Ulooms and Hawzas.
Closer links between mosques, Shariah Councils and statutory agencies. Community representation needs to be included in the coordinated multi agency approach to child protection, MARACs and other panels looking at family disputes. However, this would not be considered until community organisations are perceived to be professional and trust worthy partners that can ensure the safety, privacy and confidentiality of those being discussed. Representation of women on Mosques and Shariah Councils is now more pressing than ever. Reservation about their involvement in religious or fiqh rulings can be understood, however there needs to be an attempt for them to be heard at least as advocates and representatives of women and families. Coordinated and strategic approach both regionally and nationally if possible between Shariah Councils and mosques that highlights best practice and a code of conduct.
Increasing outreach and educational initiatives by mosques and Shariah Councils to their communities. This can include holding open days or drop in surgery's and courses on healthy relationships, Islamic injunctions and teachings on such matters.
MINAB could set up or in the least encourage an annual educational campaign dealing with issue and twin it with national agencies like National Women's Aid, Refuge or other similar charities. Talking and generating debate about family, safety within the family and healthy relationships in Madrassahs and Sunday schools.
Research carried out by the author into the Muslim communities' response to domestic violence and forced marriage and honour-based violence indicates that there is an ever increasing need but the capacity and skills of the community to deal with this issue is seriously lacking. The Muslim community needs to set up community lead initiatives which are professional, safe and committed to ending violence within families. There is a Jewish Women's Aid, a Latin Women's Aid, and Asian Women's Aid but why isn't there a Muslim Women's Aid organisation? We need significant investment in this area both by government and the community.
Concerted effort needed to create closer links between community organisations and charities and bodies that work in the field of domestic violence, forced marriage and honour based violence. This is particularly important to ensure that spiritual, religious advice and guidance can be easily accessible to the victims who express a desire for it.
Funding to create a community helpline and counselling services to both men and women who suffer from this issue. Currently there is one organisation in the whole of the country that works with male perpetrators in the Arabic language and provides them with a 13 week educational programme that challenges their attitude and behaviour regarding violence, control and abuse. And predictably it receives absolutely no funding from the community and very little from government.