Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) condemn the Law Society’s recent guidelines for ‘Shari’a-compliant’ wills in the UK, which make provision for gender-discriminatory inheritance practices. The Law Society’s practice note includes the following points:
“… No distinction is made between children of different marriages, but illegitimate and adopted children are not Shari’a heirs.”
“The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class. Non-Muslims may not inherit at all, and only Muslim marriages are recognised. Similarly, a divorced spouse is no longer a Shari’a heir”.
Clearly, inheritance conducted in this manner discriminates on the basis of gender. When inheritance follows these lines, economic violence against women becomes viable – financial assets follow the male line and women, even if they have previously invested in property for example, can become impoverished as assets are handed to male heirs. In this sense, the guidelines offer a mandate for the financial abuse of women and their children. Such inheritance practices also blatantly discriminate against ‘illegitimate’ and adopted children.
To be clear, the Law Society’s practice note does not change the law. It does, however, undermine the way adopted children, children born out of wedlock, and children deemed to be of another or no faith are viewed. This is a worrying precedent to set. There are also concerns that these guidelines lay the groundwork for a change in the law so that different laws of intestacy (where someone dies without making a will) might be applied to Muslims or those deemed to be Muslim. In such an instance, women would again be the immediate victims. Indeed, we see any move towards recognition of parallel legal systems as a danger to women.
Importantly, the Law Society’s guidelines are considered to represent best practice standards. Such standards should espouse the principles of human rights and gender equality. It concerns us to see a highly influential institution endorse discriminatory practices without question. WLUML see the issuing of these guidelines as an adherence to a damaging idea of cultural relativism; the guidelines encourage solicitors to adopt a set alternative approach to clients who are deemed ‘different’. The effect of this is to reinforce simplistic notions of ‘Islam’ and ‘Shari’a’, and what ‘Muslims’ want.
The guidelines completely overlook the fact that Shari’a is itself a highly contested concept. By making references to ‘Shari’a’ as a single entity, the guidelines essentially ‘freeze’ Shari’a and suggest that it is not open to question. Women within various Muslim communities have struggled long and hard to make inroads into sexist interpretations of religion. The Law Society’s guidelines completely erase this struggle and give credence to fundamentalists in their attempts to be the last word in defining ‘culture’.
As is often the case, an attempt to accommodate minorities has resulted in an endorsement of the ‘orthodox’ or ‘traditional’ element of the minority community, rather than a recognition of the community’s diversity. Muslims and people of Muslim heritage encompass people with a much greater variety of standpoints and opinions than those these guidelines represent as ‘Muslims’.
It is likely that this issue, like so many others, will be hijacked by xenophobic right-wing forces within the UK. We condemn this, and the prevailing climate of prejudice and discrimination faced by Muslims in Britain. Nonetheless, we cannot allow one right-wing threat to silence us against another. It is with this in mind that we condemn the Law Society’s guidelines, and the real risks that right-wing Muslim forces in the UK pose to women’s rights and freedoms.
We call upon the Law Society to withdraw this practice note immediately.
Please write to the Law Society at the following address to express your concern:
Chief Executive and Office Holders of the Law Society,
The Law Society Hall,
113, Chancery Lane,
Or call them on: (+44)02072421222
Update: The practice note was withdrawn and an apology issued by the Law Society on 24th November 2014
 British law already allows those making wills to dispose of their assets generally as they wish – gender-discriminatory or not, religiously-inspired or not. There are, however, certain restrictions to this principle, for example to ensure dependants are provided for.