Policing and Crime Bill - Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 16th November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 6:45 pm, 16th November 2016

My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 219C in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Buscombe, Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. I am most grateful to them for their support.

At the outset, I emphasise two points. First, this is a probing amendment, seeking to highlight serious concerns and to explore possible solutions. Secondly, this is in no way—as has been indicated by some—an anti-Muslim or Islamophobic initiative. It is motivated by deep concern for many women suffering in this country in ways which are utterly unacceptable, and it has strong support from leading Muslim women scholars, such as the internationally-renowned Canadian Raheel Raza and many Muslim women in this country.

The amendment provides an obligation on the celebrant of a religious marriage to ensure that it is also legally registered. The maximum penalty for failing to do so would be three years in prison. This may seem a severe provision. However, when I hear from women who have suffered horrendously from the religious marriages which are not legally registered, I believe there is an urgent need for effective measures to remedy the situation. The amendment does not identify any specific faith tradition, yet it does have specific relevance for Muslim women who are adversely affected by the discriminatory rulings of many Sharia councils. As Theresa May explained when speaking as Home Secretary,

“there is evidence of women being ‘divorced’ under Sharia law and left in penury, wives who are forced to return to abusive relationships because Sharia councils say a husband has a right to ‘chastise’, and Sharia councils giving the testimony of a woman only half the weight of the testimony of a man”.

I do not say this happens in every case, but I will highlight two concerns which cause profound distress to many women, some of whom have come to see me to share their pain. The first is the issue of divorce. Under many applications of Sharia law, a husband does not have to undertake the same process as a wife when seeking an Islamic divorce. He merely has to say “I divorce you” three times, without having to give any reasons or justification to any person or authority. The wife, however, must meet various conditions and usually has to pay a fee.

Just two weeks ago, a Muslim lady came to me in tears after the breakdown of her own Islamic marriage. Although a religious ceremony had taken place, the marriage had never been officially registered and was therefore not valid in the eyes of civil law. She was denied access to her children, ostracised by her community and felt so lonely, broken and ashamed that she had attempted to commit suicide. Another lady, who had suffered years of abuse from her husband, showed me a piece of paper she had received through the post. It simply read, “I divorce you”, three times. No consent from her was needed, her opinion was not sought and the imam confirmed the divorce. To use her words, and I will never forget the yearning in her voice, “I felt that plain piece of paper was a mockery of my human rights”.

Many noble Lords will have seen the research conducted by the courageous Muslim woman Habiba Jaan, which describes similar experiences from Muslim women in the West Midlands. She found that the majority of women who had had an Islamic wedding ceremony were unaware that their marriage was not officially recognised by English law. Many were deeply disturbed when they discovered their predicament and said they wished they had known the reality of their situation and its implications. Devout Muslim women who had been divorced often faced stigmatisation in their own communities. Many felt trapped, unable to remarry. Once divorced by their husbands, they may be regarded as second-class or broken glass, able to marry again only into a marriage where there is already one wife. Many do not wish to be a second or third wife.

That brings me to the second issue that the amendment seeks to address: polygamy. We know from countless testimonies that many British Muslim women are living in polygamous households. Habiba Jaan’s report found that nearly all the women in such marriages said their husband does not support them financially. Some said their husbands had as many as four wives. Some said they were not even aware, when they were married, that there was already another wife. Again, such women are at risk of being ignorant of their vulnerability or duped into believing they are married under the law of the land, only to find upon divorce that they have little or no rights to child custody, finance or property.

While the state must always respect religious freedom, it is unacceptable that women can be denied basic rights consistent with the laws, values, principles and policies of our country. I could give so many more tragic examples of the plight of these women, but I hope I have given enough evidence of cause for concern and the need for action to address the problems of these women, and many more whose stories we cannot hear because they live in closed communities where there is great pressure on them not to speak out, as that would be deemed to bring shame on the family and the community.

I reiterate that the amendment does not specify any faith tradition. If women from different faiths experience comparable problems of systematic discrimination, its provisions would also be available for them. I also repeat that this is a probing amendment, seeking to highlight totally unacceptable situations in our country, with women suffering in ways that I always say would make the suffragettes turn in their graves. I hope the amendment will receive a sympathetic response from the Minister and open up discussion for consideration of urgently needed and effective remedies for the problems it seeks to address. I beg to move.