Page last updated at 13:09 GMT, Monday, 15 December 2008

Some Imams 'biased against women'

By Sanjiv Buttoo
BBC Asian Network

A mosque dome
Many women felt they did not get a fair hearing under Sharia law

A Muslim think tank has found some UK Imams discriminate against women when enforcing Islamic Sharia law.

Scholars at the Centre for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) interviewed 90 Muslims in London, the West Midlands, Lancashire and West Yorkshire.

They found some women did not get fair hearings in forced marriage, arranged marriage and domestic violence matters.

It comes after an NHS doctor was freed in Bangladesh following claims she was being held there for a forced marriage.

Sharia is a set of principles which govern the way many Muslims believe they should live their life. Some mosques hold Sharia courts.

The CIP's international director and its report's author Dr Irfan Al-Alawi said women seeking help in situations like forced marriages often turned to Imams for a ruling on what to do.

Some ladies have approached the Imams and the Imams... have encouraged the ladies to stay with their husband or with their in-laws
Dr Irfan Al-Alawi

"Our research shows that domestic violence and forced marriages seem to be the dominant problems that women are facing and seeking Sharia rulings on.

"In every case it is a male who is the defendant coming from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.

"Some ladies have approached the Imams and the Imams... have encouraged the ladies to stay with their husband or with their in-laws, whereby they have a duty bound under the Sharia."

He said he knew of a 15-year-old girl in Pakistan who was tricked into marriage over the telephone with a 40-year-old man from Sheffield, who had the mental age of a four-year-old child.

"The Home Office refused to recognise the validity of the marriage but the Islamic Sharia Council in Britain accepted it," said Dr Al-Alawi.

He said Imams should be working at the heart of their communities showing leadership, but some were failing to do so.

He accused some Imams of "cashing in" on the Sharia system.

On average it may cost someone 250 to go and get an Islamic divorce, he said.

Doctor Humayra Abedin
Dr Abedin's return has been ordered by the High Court in Dhaka

"There are Pirs [Muslim holy men] and Imams who come here from south Asia and charge people for charms, holy water... how is this helping anyone?" he asked.

"They should be putting back something useful into society."

The spotlight has been on forced marriages in recent weeks, with the introduction of new laws designed to help victims, and a high-profile case in Bangladesh.

Lawyers for trainee NHS GP Humayra Abedin, 33, from east London, said her family planned to force her into marriage after she travelled to Dhaka.

She had travelled there as she thought her mother was ill, and then was held against her will for months, they said.

Ms Abedin is due to arrive back in the UK later, after London's High Court ordered her return under the new Forced Marriage Act and the High Court in Dhaka also ruled she must be freed.

Thirty-year-old Sophiya (not her real name) from West Yorkshire, was 13 when her father arranged her marriage to a distant cousin in Pakistan.

I saw three Imams but they all ruled that I was legally married according to the Sharia
Sophiya, 30

She said that after much resistance she was forced to marry a man she did not want to, but decided to go through with it so she could get back to the UK and put her case to a local Imam.

"I saw three Imams but they all ruled that I was legally married according to the Sharia. I told them I had been forced but they said that did not change anything."

Sophiya decided to try and please her parents and her new husband and carry on, but three years later she sought an Islamic divorce.

"I met some more Imams and said that we had been separated now for nearly two years but instead of giving me guidance with my divorce, they suggested I had to go for counselling or therapy.

"I told them I had been forced and this was not Islamic, but they disagreed."

A few months later Sophyia's husband wrote and gave her the Islamic divorce she longed for.

"I went through the proper Islamic way and these men told me to go away."

Sophiya said she wants the government to send Imams back to their countries of origin if they cannot uphold the true values of the Sharia.

'Grey area'

Ishtiaq Ahmed, is a spokesperson the Council for Mosques, a Bradford-based group which represents over 90 mosques and religious schools.

"We have in Britain... Muslims from all over the world, people are practising their own cultural, their social, kind of way of life.

"We have looked into this issue on many occasions and have found that for some Imams a grey area can form where the rulings of the Sharia finish and long-held cultural practices start.

"Imams do need more training and help; we also need lots more female scholars, ulemas, to work with our communities and try and help women."

"I feel Imams are not trying to deliberately discriminate against anyone we just have to be more open in how we pass judgements so everyone is happy and understands the process."

The report is due to be published next month and will be sent to the government and agencies.

It will recommend that Imams coming to the UK from south Asia and Africa need to be vetted to ensure they have a broad knowledge of Islam and a good command of English, so they can carry out their duties in a professional and competent way.

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