The most recent scandal surrounding the sexual exploitation of Muslim women by Islamic religious leaders in the UK is yet further proof of the way in which Britain is turning a blind eye to horrific practices going on right under its nose.
A BBC investigation into "halala" -- a ritual enabling a divorced Muslim woman to remarry her husband by first wedding someone else, consummating the union, and then being divorced by him -- revealed that imams in Britain are not only encouraging this, but profiting financially from it. This depravity has led to many such women being held hostage, literally and figuratively, to men paid to become their second husbands.
This ritual, which is considered a misinterpretation of Islamic sharia law even by extremist Shi'ites and Saudi-style Salafists, is practiced by certain Islamic sects, such as Hanafis, Barelvis and Deobandis. When a husband repeats the Arabic word for divorce -- talaq -- three times to his wife, these sects consider a Muslim marriage null and void. For such a woman to be allowed to return to the husband who banished her, she must first marry someone else -- and have sex with him -- before the second husband divorces her.
These divorce rites, despite the laws of the land, are common in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other Asian countries, where a majority of the people belong to the Hanafi, Barelvi or Deobandi sects. Nevertheless, local seminaries, mosques and online services openly advertise and promote halala with impunity; it is accepted by society and rarely monitored by state authorities.
In Britain, halala has emerged as a booming business, with websites and social media sites offering to provide women with second husbands for exorbitant sums of money. As bad as this is, there is an even darker side to the story: Under sharia law, the second husband is under no obligation to give his wife a quick divorce -- allowing him to keep her as his virtual sex slave for as long as he wishes.
One Muslim woman, who changed her mind about going through with halala after looking into the process, told the BBC that she knew others who did undergo the process, and ended up being sexually abused for months by the second husbands paid to marry them. According to a report in The Guardian, the Sharia Council of Britain says it deals with hundreds of divorce cases annually.
This infamous council is indirectly responsible for what essentially has become a rape pandemic, since it does nothing to stop or refute halala. In fact, it declares that the practice is completely legal under sharia law. The only caveat, the council states, is that the imams presiding over it are not following the proper guidelines, according to which the second marriage and divorce should not be premeditated, but rather happen naturally.
If one asks how all of this jibes with British law, the answer is that it does not. But young Muslims in the UK are discouraged by their communities from marrying through the British system, and are told to have imams perform their weddings and sharia councils register their marriages. Couples who comply end up being at the mercy of Islamic authorities in family matters, including divorce.
Due to its often unethical practices conducted in the name of religious law, the Sharia Council has come under scrutiny a number of times. Last November, for instance, the UK-based NGO, Muslim Women's Network, penned an open letter -- with 100 signatories -- to the British government and Home Affairs Select Committee demanding that the Sharia Council be investigated to determine whether its practices adhere to British law.
In response, the Sharia Council declared the letter to be "Islamophobic" and accused the Muslim Women's Network of being an anti-Muslim organization. In addition, Labour MP Naz Shah jumped to the defense of the Sharia Council, rejecting the idea of an inquiry, on the grounds that shutting down such councils could mean that more women would be stuck in abusive marriages.
While acknowledging that these councils could be used as a tool to deny women their rights, Shah said that they also serve as valuable arbitrators in marital disputes.
Her claims are totally baseless. It is British law, not sharia, law that protects Muslim individuals and couples, as it does any other citizen.
Haitham al-Haddad is a British shari'a council judge, and sits on the board of advisors for the Islamic Sharia Council. Regarding the handling of domestic violence cases, he stated in an interview, "A man should not be questioned why he hit his wife, because this is something between them. Leave them alone. They can sort their matters among themselves." (Image source: Channel 4 News video screenshot)
Had the British government addressed Sharia Council malpractice when it was first revealed, we would not be facing this pandemic today. Contrary to what apologists for this travesty say, the plight of Muslim women should be treated as an issue of human rights.
It is time for the British government to wake up and take a tough stand on such unethical, and probably illegal, system. And the sooner the better, lest the whole sharia council system go "underground" and out of reach to protect thousands of women from abuse.
Khadija Khan is a Pakistan-based journalist and commentator.