UK: Comment: "Failed by religious law"
The painful everyday realities of many minority women and children show that there is nothing "moderate" about the way in which such leaders have dictated the social agenda. A glance at their demands will show that most are about the need to retain "purity" of religious identity, through the control of women's minds and bodies. Many promote violent forms of sharia and religious laws both here and abroad. These same leaders have created a climate of intolerance and fear against those who seek to question or dissent from prevailing religious or cultural norms. That is why demands for blasphemy laws, separate schools and personal laws to govern the family affairs of the community are at the forefront of their agenda.
But I am not just talking about extreme examples of control. I refer also to the everyday experiences of abuse and violence to women and children in which religious community leaders are implicated. Over some 30 years, we have never known of women resorting to the civil law for divorce, injunctions and custody of children without first having exhausted internal methods of resolution through community and religious structures. It is only when they are failed at every turn that they seek justice from the wider legal system. Most when listened to, are encouraged to return to abusive families, having first been castigated for being disloyal to their religion and culture. (The experiences of the many Jewish women who have had to endure the Beth Din system also confirms the unequal status accorded to women in these undemocratic community arbitration schemes.)
The idea that civil law should to a greater degree, accommodate cultural and religious difference in family matters is equally vulnerable to challenge. Such accommodation is problematic because in many instances it would necessarily involve shoring up patriarchal and caste power, resulting in the violation of fundamental human rights, especially the right of choice and autonomy for women and girls in particular.
It is true, as Ayesha Khan pointed out earlier this week in the Guardian, that most minority (not just Muslim) women, harbour a strong instinct to fight for their rights. This is precisely why any move to limit their rights by institutionalising discriminatory value systems within the wider legal system will be dangerous. Those who need our help the most are those who are the most powerless to determine their choices. Women approaching religious councils which have no formal legal value in any country (including Muslim countries) are not exercising a right, but merely demonstrating to their communities that they are not defying their norms. Our experience shows that what many eventually want the most, is the right to opt out of those aspects of their religion and culture that they consider oppressive, without fear of repercussions.
If the archbishop wished to do so, he would also avoid framing this debate as if black and minority people can't claim ownership of the human rights principles and norms that now underpin the English legal system. At best, the archbishop is dangerously misguided in his attempt to assert a tolerant liberalism. At worst, he seeks to shape a larger agenda in order to privilege all religionists."
By: Pragna Patel
14 February 2008
Pragna Patel is a founding member of the Southall Black Sisters and Women Against Fundamentalism. She worked as a coordinator and senior caseworker for SBS from 1982. She is currently the chair of SBS. She has written extensively on race, gender and religion.