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UK: different legal systems for different categories of citizens

Tuesday 22 June 2010, by siawi2

Source: ONE LAW FOR ALL RALLY 20th June 2010

The Millions and the Foolish Few

Speech by Gita Sahgal

Friends –this campaign stands at the heart of a debate over the future of Britain. It also stands at the heart of global attempts to destroy the most basic rights, to invade liberty and to crush equality and to do this in the name of upholding and promoting human rights. We stand here today facing down forces of racism and fundamentalism as we struggle for secularism.

Systems of religious law are common in many parts of the world and many of them have been reformed. But as the report points out, every single one of these reforms, whether it produced a common legal code or reformed different religious laws, took place because of internal movements for reform. These occurred in moments of greater secularisation.

Today, Banks and government aid agencies are promoting sharia laws and other parallel systems as a form of cheap and accessible justice. Many of them acknowledge that these systems do not, in fact, deliver justice. They are a particular problem for women and minorities since they reinforce the power of local elites. But no-one cares enough about this to change policy.

In fact, many papers are being written to provide intellectual justification for this policy. Worthy academics, misread women’s rights arguments. There is much talk of ‘balancing rights’ between group rights and individual rights. Beware when you hear talk of balancing of rights. Generally, it a code for denying women rights. Sometimes it is an explicit denial of women’s rights

In a post-conflict, post imperial world, peace and stability, will only be secure when women are forced back into submission and the Chiefs are back in power. That is what is happening in the dying days of Britain’s role as international policeman. That is what talking to the Taliban means. And it is happening in many other places away from the attention of the world. Fundamentalists are not seen as a threat to peace and security. As long as they promise not to plant bombs in Britain, they will be allowed to making lives miserable abroad. It is women who constitute the threat to security by disrupting the plans of the powerful.

In the course of years of work with women’s rights activists, I have often been asked why Britain’s major export is fundamentalism, particularly those that the last Labour government had decided were ‘moderates’.

We have a new government now, but I am concerned that this government will not change much. For one, indirect rule is one of the old and tested method of Empire as well considered a cheap alternative to post- Empire. Also, fundamentalists who preach the politics of purity are quite entertainingly promiscuous about getting into bed with any political party. They will re-invent themselves as part of the Big Society and offer cut price services on everything. In fact, one of the main organizing centres for global movements of fundamentalism - the East London Mosque - already does just that.

So if anyone thinks that law is not an issue and that the coming cuts to public services are what matters; think again. Private law alongside services delivered by religious organizations will be offered as part of a cheap two -for -one deal which will effectively contain and isolate Muslims in Britain.

One of the most powerful arguments that the ‘Sharia Councils’ use is that they exist to provide women their ‘Islamic rights’. Women, it is said, want these councils. They must be given a choice.

Over 20 years ago, I made a film about Sati – the upper caste Hindu practice of burning of women on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Having long been abolished, some women appeared to defy the law in order to publicly and ritually kill themselves. The patriarchs who controlled their lives claimed that they were not there, or had fainted when their daughters- in- law were possessed by a spirit and made this important spiritual decision.

In fact, it was precisely because sati had been illegal for over a century that spirit possession suddenly appeared. When it was legal, women were told it was their duty to kill themselves and they would be made to do their duty if they appeared reluctant. But once it was illegal, then suddenly women did it out of ‘choice’. No man, was man enough to stop them.

So it is with repressive legal systems. Threaten women enough with the consequences of their immorality, threaten them with shunning and many will certainly make ‘a choice.’ Not least many will make a choice to show that they are indeed good Muslims.

But there is another reason. One researcher studying ‘Sharia Councils’ found that many of the women she interviewed had not had a registered marriage. If you are not formally married you cannot be formally divorced. One way of solving this is to make sure that there are plenty of opportunities to register marriages, including allowing mosques to be places of registration. Another would be to look at the changes in immigration rules which have made it harder to get married in this country, thus driving many people to informal solutions. Another is to produce clear messages that the decisions made by Sharia Councils may very well be illegal and also do not have weight in law in many Muslim countries. In other words, they cause pain and humiliation but are worthless pieces of paper.

Many of these messages can be delivered loudly and clearly by groups and organizations who believe that religious laws are capable of reform and know the wide range of practice and interpretation that exists. I urge such groups to come forward and make common cause with the One Law for All Campaign. In Canada, it the multiple voices – of the ‘no sharia’ campaign and the campaign organized by the YWCA and the Canadian Council of Muslim Women which were successful in reversing the decision to allow religious arbitration.

I think it is highly significant that in Britain there has been silence where there should have been condemnation. There is active support for ‘sharia laws’ precisely because it is limited to denying women rights in the family. No hands are being cut off, so there can’t be a problem. Unfortunately for us, senior law officers will find that human rights expert bodies often have a similar attitude. They have done little research on the impact of family laws and the denial of justice caused by parallel systems of justice. That is why the findings of this report are so important. It is such dedicated work that changes the thinking of the experts.

The issue of ‘Sharia’ law was used strategically by the Church of England too. The Archbishop of Canterbury, needed to assert that religious law has a place in British life. He made that statement at the time his own Church was in danger of splitting on questions of equality such as gay marriage.

But in spite of these problems, there are signs of hope and the start of many converging movements for change. This election brought Conservatives to power – but it also signaled the defeat of the far right in all its various forms – the BNP was seen off, UKIP did abysmally and Respect was utterly defeated. In the face of coming hardship, the British people of all racial and religious backgrounds refused the politics of hate, fear and intimidation. The electorate, it seems, is way ahead of the anti- racist activists and theorists. Today, in Tower Hamlets, there is a mobilization apparently against racism. Many good and honest people will march shoulder to shoulder with the East London Mosque and the front organizations of the SWP. They want to express their solidarity with Muslims against the threat of the English Defence League to march in Tower Hamlets.

Unfortunately for them, local activists who have fought both racism and fundamentalism for years, do not recognize the East London Mosque as a leader in a campaign against racism. These activists have said loud and clear that while the EDL promotes hatred of Muslims, the organizations associated with the mosque too, promote hatred - often of local Muslims and many others.

Local anti-fascists, both black and white, have recognized the political agenda of hate behind the apparently anti-racist march. They know that the defeated forces of Respect are using a language of anti-racism to create an atmosphere of hysteria. They themselves have been intimidated for raising the great struggle for accountability for the mass killings that occurred in 1971: killings in which activists of the Jamaat I Islami were allegedly involved. If they are not Muslim, they are attacked as Islamophobes.

But the ideologues of an exhausted anti-racism, are, after all, only a few. A very foolish few. Many more, numbering millions, are those who have repeatedly rejected the politics of fundamentalism. You find them here in Britain, but also in Bangladesh and Pakistan, in India and Iran, in Sudan and Iraq and many other places. And that is why, this campaign, which allies liberty to equality in the interest of justice, is so important. For us in Britain; and right across the world.