I spent last year travelling through Muslim Britain, partly in an attempt to address this niggling question of inherent misogyny. My findings surprised me. Take, for instance, the practice of sharia here, the system so widely viewed as inimical to the rights of women. In Oldham, 15 minutes up the road from Manchester Arena, I sat in on a session of the Wuzara Ulama sharia council, whose sole function turned out to be to grant divorces to women trapped in bad marriages, often over the heads of abusive husbands who didn’t want to separate. These women had no other escape route. Maulana Ejaz, the cleric from Dewsbury who heads the Council, estimates that in northern England where he operates, some 60 per cent of Muslim marriages are not registered under English civil law — which of course renders the English legal system powerless to offer would-be divorcees any redress at all.
None of Ejaz’s customers felt repressed by sharia. On the contrary, he was able to produce a dozen feedback forms from past clients, all of them women escaping abusive marriages, and all of them expressing gratitude for the councillors’ help and describing as ‘excellent’ the service they had received. In other words, the Wuzara Ulama — who do not charge for their services — are set up to defend, not prejudice, the rights of women.
There is much talk of ‘creeping sharia-isation’ in Britain, of the frightening notion that Muslims are evolving a parallel legal system that challenges and subverts the ancient principle of ‘one law for all’ laid out by Magna Carta in 1215. In the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage claimed there were more than 80 sharia courts in the UK. ‘Big ghettos’, he said, were being run according to sharia law while the authorities ‘turned a blind eye’ out of ‘moral cowardice’.
British sharia is not without its problems. The way it is implemented varies too much from council to council, and there is a good case for greater regulation. A formal government review has been underway since last year. But the notion that it is subversive is nonsense. Sharia scholars meet in councils, not courts, which operate subserviently to and in careful conjunction with English law, not in parallel to it. Islam, Ejaz told me, is clear on the matter of jurisdictional precedence: a good Muslim must follow the law of the land in which he lives. I found no Sharia ‘ghettos’, and the figure of 80 councils in Britain is a myth: Ejaz knew of no more than six. Given the essential public service his ulama provide, it may be that we need more of them, not fewer.
There is, of course, no punishment for crimes against God, such as adultery and drinking alcohol, in Britain, nor any likelihood of it ever being introduced. Stoning and hand-chopping — hudud punishments — are against the law. Sharia, in any case, may be a much gentler legal code than its public image suggests. I later heard an intriguing defence of hudud from a Salafi traditionalist in Oldham, a secondary school teacher called Samir, who thought of it as a kind of nuclear option, a weapon of deterrence rather than one intended for actual use, except in the most extreme circumstances. Adultery, for example, may be punishable under sharia by stoning to death. But the charge has first to be proven, not by one but by four independent witnesses to the act — and as he said, how often does that happen in real life? ‘There’s dogging, I suppose,’ said Samir after some thought. ‘But to be honest there’s not much of that going on in Oldham.’
I wondered about CCTV footage, but Samir said the jurists had thought of that and ruled it inadmissible: an adulterer can only be deemed in flagrante delicto if seen by actual people using their actual eyes. Islam, he went on, is more interested in contrition for sin than punishing people for it. The seriousness of the crime is clear from the sanction it theoretically carries, but the ‘four witnesses’ condition — introduced, as Samir saw it, by Muhammad himself — deliberately makes the punishment almost impossible to issue. To Samir, this was proof of the Prophet’s wisdom and ultimate humanity.
Terrible misogyny does exist in some Muslim communities, including British ones — of course it does, and it is a great social curse. The details of domestic violence I heard at the sharia divorce council were appalling. But inherent to Islam? A religion founded by a prophet married to Khadija, a rich, successful and very unrepressed-sounding business woman? I don’t think so. Many of the misogynistic ‘Muslim’ practices westerners most object to — arranged marriages, say, or honour violence — are sociocultural in origin, not religious. Female genital mutilation is millennia older than Islam. The clue is in the procedure’s medical name, Pharaonic infibulation. Non-Muslims often view the veil, particularly the Arabian niqab that leaves nothing but the eyes exposed, as a symbol of submissiveness rather than self-assertion, of repression rather than progress and liberation. At the beginning of my journey around Muslim Britain I felt sure I would find at least one niqabi who had been coerced into wearing it by a husband, a father, a brother. But I was wrong. I conducted more than a dozen interviews with niqabis and every one of them said they wore it out of choice; not one of them said they had been or felt forced.
Their explanations were startling in their variety. Some wore the niqab out of religious fervour. Some were political activists. Some, like Ahlam Saed, 25, from White City in west London, even wore it out of vanity.
‘I’m a make-up kind of girl,’ she told me, ‘and my eyes are my best feature. So I bought a niqab to draw attention to them.’
Saed became a fleeting internet sensation in 2016 when she posted footage of herself being abused in a shop in Shepherd’s Bush. Her assailant, an Afro-Caribbean who called her ‘Batman’ and ranted about Britain being a Christian country for Christians, was later arrested. ‘I only went in to get a packet of Starburst,’ Saed later told the Evening Standard. In the febrile debate over British Islam, nothing is ever as it seems.