In response to a new report, "Ethnic minority women and divorce – with a focus on Muslim practice," Denmark's Minister of Integration, Mattias Tesfaye, said: "The report is shocking. We live in 2020. Not in the Middle ages. The oppressed women need to know their rights... We won't accept social control." (Image source: PES Communications/Flickr)
In March 2016, a three-part television documentary, "The Mosques Behind the Veil," was aired on Danish TV2. The documentary sent two young Muslims undercover, as Fatma and Muhammed, to a number of "parallel" Muslim societies in Denmark.
For the purpose of the documentary, Fatma was given a personal cover story -- based on real-life dilemmas -- for which she would seek advice from the different imams: Her husband was violent, and she did not wish to have sex with him. She could not get pregnant and his family had found a second wife for him. All the Danish imams with whom she consulted in the documentary told her to put up with the violence. When she pleaded for divorce at a sharia council in the Fredens mosque in Århus, Denmark's second largest city, the imams there refused and told her -- ten times -- that she must go back to her husband and try again.
At the time, Danish researchers estimated that there were a number of sharia councils in Denmark. "Sharia councils are apparently a black market, which exists in hiding. It is hard for me to put a number on it, but it is there," said Professor Thomas Hoffmann at the University of Copenhagen in 2016.
Four years later, in February 2020, the daily newspaper Berlingske Tidende revealed that an Islamic center in Copenhagen, Islamic Center for the European Countries, functions as a kind of sharia court, and "issues legal Islamic judgments and answers in all cases relating to Islamic faith, rules, marriage, divorce, conduct, inheritance and halal/haram questions, all based on Al-Qur'an, Sunnah and Muslim scholars' agreement and analogies," as the center wrote in a document describing its activities. Danish authorities ought to have known this -- the description is found on the list of approved religious communities in Denmark on the Danish Church Ministry's own website.
The "discovery" of the sharia court comes after a new report, "Ethnic minority women and divorce – with a focus on Muslim practice," written for the Danish Ministry of Immigration and Integration, showed that Muslim women who were married according to Islamic law -- either abroad or in Denmark -- find it difficult to obtain a religious divorce from a Danish imam.
"The report is shocking. We live in 2020. Not in the Middle ages. The oppressed women need to know their rights... We won't accept social control" said Danish Minister of Integration Mattias Tesfaye.
One interviewed woman, identified as Khulud, an immigrant from Iraq, described how her husband refused to divorce her:
"I was on the phone with him and he began to threaten me. He told me: 'I can make you regret the day you got to know me. I am willing to use all means to make your life bitter and unbearable'... But the [imams] just keep telling me, 'we cannot give a woman a divorce, who has made her Nikah [Islamic marriage contract] in Iraq...' I have tried to kill myself several times – I am just so tired."
Minister of Integration Tesfaye said that he wants Danish sharia councils "stopped".
"If you want a country with sharia courts then there are lots of countries to go to. Nobody forces those kinds of people to stay in Denmark," Tesfaye said.
"We don't have specific courts for Muslims... the essence of Danish society is that we have... courts that apply to everyone... There are many democratic Muslims, who lead normal lives and are well integrated in Danish society. They should not feel committed to a religious authority in Denmark and submit to an extra set of rules... Nobody is obliged to go to an imam to get a divorce... If some people feel that they are in a marriage against their will then they have to go to the authorities. There are no shortcuts here. I know it is easier said than done, but then we as a society must support them".
"As a government," he added, "we are not going to facilitate an Islamic institution that approves divorces... our authorities are for everybody regardless of religious background... We only have one set of rules and one set of courts..."
One imam, Mostafa Chendid, estimates that 2,000-3000 Muslim women in Denmark are trapped in Islamic marriages they cannot get out of. "It is a big problem and many men hold the women hostage in marriages they do not want. They won't accept a divorce from a Danish court – only from a religious one," he said. "I know women who have tried in vain for ten years to find an imam that will accept their divorce." He added:
"80-90 % of the imams will not recognize that a divorce from a Danish court is also valid religiously. And at the same time, the women's husbands and families tell them that they are not divorced until they have the imams' approval".
According to Jesper Petersen, who co-wrote the report, "Ethnic minority women and divorce – with a focus on Muslim practice":
"... Some Muslim women experience serious problems of physical and psychological abuse and social control. And in their local environments the secular divorce... is not considered enough to dissolve the religious divorce. That is why the husband can keep them in an Islamic marriage against their will."
It was four years ago that Danish television first exposed sharia councils and imams that help keep Muslim women in abusive marriages and in parallel societies. How is it possible that Danish politicians are still "shocked"?
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.