A top advocate for Muslim women’s rights has welcomed Baroness Cox’s Bill, which is designed to curb the problems caused by Sharia courts operating in England and Wales.
Cassandra Balchin, co-founder and Chair of the Muslim Women’s Network-UK, said that in her work with Muslim women, she had found “anecdotal evidence of gender discriminatory arbitration”.
And this included family cases, “which ought to be beyond any arbitration tribunal’s jurisdiction.”
Lady Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill is designed to stop a parallel legal system taking root and it also aims to ensure equality before the law for women.
Cassandra Balchin says that some Muslim women have a tougher time in Britain than in many Muslim countries.
She also welcomed other aspects of the Bill, chiefly the proposed provisions to penalise false claims to legal jurisdiction.
“Unlike the arbitration tribunals, Sharia councils have no legal status but a minority sometimes misleadingly imply their mediated decisions carry some legal weight”, she said.
She added that the Bill’s provisions, if made law, would probably increase pressure on the Sharia councils to improve their practice and actively clarify for their clients that their decisions have no legal weight, before they initiate mediation.
Lady Cox’s Private Member’s Bill, which was tabled last month in the House of Lords, makes clear that laws against sex discrimination apply to arbitration tribunals, firmly outlawing the Sharia practice of treating a woman’s testimony as worth half that of a man’s.
It further makes it unlawful to arbitrate in inheritance disputes on the basis that women should automatically inherit less than men.
Lady Cox said: “My Bill seeks to stop parallel legal, or ‘quasi-legal’, systems taking root in our nation. Cases of criminal law and family law are matters reserved for our English courts alone.
“I am deeply concerned about the treatment of Muslim women by Sharia courts. We must do all that we can to make sure they are free from any coercion, intimidation or unfairness.”