Establishing that women suffer when religion and law collide is like establishing that excrement emits an unpleasant odour.
On Monday 22 April BBC’s Panorama examined the fundamental incompatibility of women’s rights and religious legal systems in their excellent programme, “Secrets of Britain’s Sharia Councils”.
For those of us who were already concerned about sharia councils there was nothing particularly new in this programme – though of course it’s always deeply unsettling to see human rights being infringed, especially in the name of a supposedly moral belief system.
A classic moment from the Panorama programme was when the undercover journalist, posing as a user of the sharia council, told the “judge” that her husband was beating her. The judge asks, “severely?” Then, displaying all the hallmarks of a sensitive, highly-trained legal professional he asks whether there was anything she had done to provoke her poor husband’s unavoidable actions – be it her cooking, seeing her friends, generally not being a good wife. You get the idea.
Without the insulating protection that only religion can provide, every mentally sound human on planet Earth and probably many unsound ones too would immediately and effortlessly conclude that sharia councils have no place whatsoever in a civilised society, other than perhaps in a museum or a horror movie.
But throw religion into the equation – and one religion in particular – and naturally everything is turned on its head. Vulnerable women are undeserving of legal protection; bullies become victims; those who speak out are part of the problem rather than part of the solution; condemnation is followed by the word “but”; the well-intentioned desire to give women from ethnic minorities the same rights as white women is a form of racism; infringement of women’s fundamental and hard-won rights is Feminism 2.0; and the language of human rights is used to justify the infringement of human rights.
That’s what religion does: it creates a dizzy, topsy-turvy world. It’s literally insane. You do have to admire it sometimes.
But surely it’s ok because there are “moderates” who will unequivocally condemn these sharia councils, right? Well not really. The role of the moderate seems to be ensuring criticism is moderate, and unfortunately their most pressing concern is often to defend Islam rather than actual human beings, even when those human beings happen to be their co-religionists. The result of these intellectual shortcomings is that so-called moderates tell us this is not “the real Islam”.
Yes, that’s right: Muslim women, married to Muslim men, being coerced ever so subtly or not subtly at all to drink an unholy Islamic legal cocktail that is neither mediation nor arbitration, seeking Islamic divorces under sharia “law” in sharia “courts” in front of sharia “judges” – is not real Islam. Well I reckon it’s pretty bloody real to the women involved. Shit doesn’t get much more real than that.
As the camera pans across to reveal a beautiful sunset and a fine sandy beach, riding to the rescue on her ethnically diverse stallion we see the dashing figure of Baroness Warsi, who reassures her Twitter followers that the government in which she is “Minister for Faith” will not tolerate this – though inexplicably the same government will not support Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill which is designed to cut the balls off sharia and other putrid religious legal systems. It would be funny if it were not so shameful.
And this is the very same Baroness Warsi, lest we forget, who demonises secularism and uses live secularists as target practice, failing to grasp (even as a lawyer herself) that only a secular legal system and secularism generally can provide the appropriate mechanisms to protect desperate women who are having their legal rights bulldozered in the name of “religious diversity”. The noble baroness fails to understand that when you apply the concept of religious diversity to human rights you end up with diversity of human rights rather than diversity of religion.
As for Mr Cameron his failure to back the Cox Bill demonstrates either a complete disregard for the rights of Muslim women or a profound lack of political intelligence, or probably a mixture of the two. Even if he couldn’t care less about the rights of women with dark skin he is too dumb to realise he could at least use this issue to kill a number of political birds with the same stone:
1. He could portray sharia councils as a symptom of “Broken Britain”.
2. He has spoken before about the failure of multiculturalism. Sharia is the textbook example to offer.
3. Leaping to the defence of women’s rights could show the Tory party is “women-friendly”.
4. Leaping specifically to the defence of Muslim women’s rights could show the Tory party is “ethnic women-friendly”.
5. He could throw a dirty bone to the Christian Right, who would be dumb enough to salivate over that bone and incorrectly interpret it as a sign that we are once again a “Christian country”, in the same way savages might interpret something falling from the sky as a message from their god.
6. He could portray himself as a strong leader, stamping down on the out-of-control, unaccountable and menacing institutions that are sharia councils.
I don’t really care about Cameron’s motivations and political dividends for dealing with sharia councils; I just want the end result to be that human rights are protected. The right result for the wrong reasons is still the right result.
I’m fed up of secularists like myself playing the role of punch bag, especially when we’re so often the ones who generally have the solutions to these problems. (Secularism is also what enables a female Muslim like Sayeeda Warsi to sit in the House of Lords.)
Foolish individuals like Cameron and Warsi forget that secularists vote, too.
Some secularists have even voted for the Conservatives in the past.
But now they’re not so sure.