Muslim women and children are chattels, not human beings. Discuss.

When religion meets law, women and children get screwed.

On 22 November I went to Conway Hall for the discussion about Sharia law and the Children Act organised by One Law For All.

One of the speakers summarised the scale of the problem very well: the space available to discuss Sharia law seems to be shrinking.

I agreed with this analysis and recounted the recent experiences I talked about in this post: if a group of western-educated lawyers going to schools as part of a charitable scheme to educate pupils about democracy and human rights – where some or many of those pupils might be at risk of harm on the basis of religious and cultural ‘differences’ – have to potentially temper the frankness of a debate they are chairing, then space is certainly getting pretty tight. I can’t help picturing Indiana Jones running through a dark, claustrophobic cave, being confronted with one falling stone door after another at every turn.

I also explained what happened as I was leaving the office to come to Conway Hall: one of my (lawyer) colleagues knew I was coming to this event and said loudly:

“Enjoy your BNP rally, Re-Enlightenment.”

Now, I have previously spoken to this colleague about Sharia law and I am reasonably confident he was ‘joking’, but his side-splitting gag nonetheless forced me to reel off a standard rebuttal of this depressingly standard accusation – not for his benefit but for that of Asian and black colleagues who were well within earshot.

This particular gentleman, who is ordinarily perfectly agreeable and impeccably mannered, is openly homosexual, and I was tempted to explain how this is not fully Sharia compliant. But me being a decent sort of chap, I assumed he didn’t want to discuss his sex life in front of his colleagues, in the office, at 5.30pm on a Tuesday, just as I didn’t really want to be falsely accused of supporting the BNP in front of the same colleagues.

It highlights again the problem of space-shrinkage: merely talking about this can put you in the same bed as Nick Griffin and his henchmen.

Attending an event like this, where most attendees were women, and where many if not a majority were “non-whites”, in order to freely discuss our unease at a barbaric legal system which gives people fewer (if any) rights on the basis of gender, age, sexual orientation and religion, doesn’t sound much like a BNP rally to me. I know the BNP likes to say it has changed, but I doubt it’s changed that much.

Another theme was how the British legal system treats women and children as human beings worthy of rights, whereas Sharia law treats them as chattels. Reflecting on this in the pub later on with a new chum of mine from the talk, we agreed this could be a useful summary of the previous two hours, if not the whole issue of Sharia law. When two ideologies which are so fundamentally opposed to one another come into direct contact, sparks are sure to fly.

It should feel instinctively awkward even toying with the idea that women and children can be chattels, but we may as well record precisely why it should make us feel awkward and why the distinction is so crucial: it determines whether moral obligations are owed.

I don’t owe any moral obligations to your state-of-the-art Nespresso® machine. I owe moral obligations to you as its lawful owner, of course – not to steal or damage your property – but an electric machine designed to produce hot, frothy drinks reliably, conveniently and cleanly has absolutely no rights itself. Unless some of our fundamental knowledge of various sciences changes, it is not capable of having rights.

I suppose animals are the main exception to classifying something as either having rights or being chattels, because in almost all cases animals will straddle both groups. (Mosquitoes? Bacteria?).   Sadly, though, a discussion of animal rights is beyond the scope of this post. And in any case, if the best defence Sharia can offer is that women and children do have rights but are also chattels, like dogs, sheep and pigs, that is significant.

(Sorry, we’re meant to be talking about the treatment of women and children under Sharia law. The discussion has morphed into animal rights but I guess talking about Sharia law can have that effect on a blogger.)

It’s tempting to describe the two competing ideologies as a clash of civilisations but I refuse to talk about Sharia law in such flattering terms, so like others before me I will simply say this is a clash about civilisation.

To establish that women and children do have rights and are not chattels (oh, how we are subtly encouraged to rethink what we think we think when a few drops of neat, undiluted Islam are poured into an otherwise reasonably functioning legal system), we need to consider the very concept of human rights.

As I explained in the above post (numbered points 2 and 5), human rights are for everyone, regardless of headwear or skin colour, and this explains the word human.

Words are important because they are often a good indication of purpose. What does the word rights tell us? It’s important to observe the kind of terminology we are not using:

  • We are not calling them human options
  • We are not calling them human extras
  • We are not calling them human nice-to-haves

We are calling them human rights.

Human rights are not there to be granted at the discretion or mercy of parents, community leaders, religious leaders or long-dead, child-marrying, child-fucking prophets. Human rights are determined by law.

Human rights are not optional extras to be downloaded if you meet certain criteria, or apps to be selected from a menu; they are entitlements based on species.

There is a tendency to think – maybe, to want to think – that Sharia law is a technical, complicated issue requiring a deep, scholarly knowledge of hundreds of years of theology and culture before comprehending it, condemning it or even expressing an opinion on it. Not so. Sharia law is unquestionably barbaric, depraved and incompatible with any notion of western liberal democracy. Beware of – and mock – anyone telling you Sharia law has to be viewed in a cultural context.

Going to events like this is important, and if you have not done so previously I would really recommend popping along to one that catches your eye, whether organised by One Law For All, the National Secular Society or any one of the many affiliated organisations.

Signing up for email newsletters, looking at websites and donating money is all well and good, but if you feel strongly about these issues it’s good to do something a little bit more. It really doesn’t have to be a lot.  I’m hardly a seasoned campaigner myself; nothing of the sort. In my case the little bit more is just a second-rate blog, going to a few events, and having the moral courage to challenge the misconceptions I regularly come across of friends, family and colleagues – such as the perverse and often unquestioned need for cultural and religious sensitivity. Remind whoever you need to, however often you need to, that cultural and religious diversity = good; diversity of human rights on the basis of culture and religion = bad, very bad.

Despite the often heavy subject matter, events like this still somehow manage to be enjoyable and even occasionally uplifting, and going for a few drinks afterwards is a great way of lifting the mood. And despite the common interests and shared objectives, the range of people I have met at these events is very wide – young, old, male, female, gay, straight, white, non-white.

And it’s also important to meet people at the sharp end of all this: those who have been abused and those who work with those who have been abused. Sharia law (and other religiously-inspired legal frameworks) are not academic, theological concepts of interest solely to Vatican clergymen and Islamic scholars. These events are a stark reminder of the tangible effects of giving ancient desert beliefs an elevated status, and those effects are hideous and disturbing. Not talking about it, and not condemning it, is guaranteed to make the problem worse.

Antony Lempert of the Secular Medical Forum summed it up well in a recent tweet:

“Real harm, real children, imaginary gods.”