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Sharia Council ban could mean 'more abuse' of Muslim women: Activists

Activists hit back at claims that Sharia Councils represent a parallel legal system, arguing that they are mostly voluntary
Home Affairs Select Committee heard evidence suggesting a vacuum of authority could be created if Sharia Councils are abolished (AFP)

A ban on Sharia Councils would leave a vacuum that could lead to an increase in violence against Muslim women, women's rights activists told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.

Speaking at the House of Commons home affairs select committee hearing on sharia law in Britain, Shaista Gobir of the Muslim Women's Network UK said that Muslim women could face more violence and abuse if a ban goes ahead. 

"We are fearful that if there is a ban on Sharia Councils then a vacuum will be created that will lead to more violence perpetrated towards Muslim women," Gobir told the parliamentary committee. 

Gobir, along with other participants, also acknowledged that a lack of female Sharia Council judges has meant the potential for discrimination against women who take their disputes to these forums. 

Other participants of the hearing, however, described Sharia Councils as parallel legal systems.

Controversial human rights activist Maryam Namazie told the committee that Sharia Councils are symptomatic of "transnational Islamist movements" that attempt to influence Muslim communities in the west. 

Gobir hit back, saying that the councils are for the "most part...voluntary," while the law is not. 

Labour MP Naz Shah also sparred with Namazie during the hearing, saying the entire debate on Sharia Councils had a "whiff of Islamaphobia".

Committee members quizzed panellists on a wide range of questions, and questioned whether Islam is being singled out compared to other religions which also have religious courts. 

Labour MP David Winnick asked :"Why should Islam be the only religion that is denied what other religions have, like Jews and Sikhs?"

Earlier on Tuesday, an open letter condemned the British government's probe into sharia law, accusing it of using the voices of Muslim women as a "political football".

Signed by women from across Britain and the religious spectrum, the letter was published to coincide with the home affairs select committee's hearing on Sharia Councils. 

Aimed at both the government and the parliamentary committee, the letter urged both bodies to prioritise the voices of Muslim women, "as they must be at the forefront of informing the solutions that must work for them."

Ordered by British prime minister Theresa May when she was still home secretary, the independent review aims to determine whether sharia law in England and Wales discriminates against women. 

The inquiry will also assess whether sharia law is compatible with the UK legal system, and whether it is being "misused," May said when she announced the probe in June 2016.

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