Regulation is absolutely necessary to ensure women are treated fairly, according to a London-based Sharia council.
Following an Observer report last month on the work of Harrow borough resident Tehmina Kazi, a campaigner working to change the law to give equal rights to women in arbitration hearings, members of the Muslim community have come out in support of her work.
Ms Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, wants Muslim women to know about alternatives to Sharia law the Islamic legal system followed by some Muslims in the UK and is supporting measures introduced in Baroness Caroline Coxs Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill.
If the Bill was made law, it would make it an offence for anyone to falsely claim or imply that Sharia courts or councils have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law in this country.
The Islamic Sharia Council in East London has a respectable reputation within the Muslim community, but spokeswoman Khola Hasan said she recognised there were other councils set up in back rooms which needed some sort of official regulation.
Ms Hasan, said: I am sure there are tinpot imams who will come down very hard on women. I am sure it is happening up and down the country.
"We are very well established, we dont do that, we set benchmarks for Sharia councils. We really make an effort to make it as equal as possible."
Regulation is absolutely necessary and very good where there is some kind of framework but I dont think Sharia councils by their nature will be unjust. The ones that are not operating properly, they will go underground.
Ms Hasan made it clear that when a married couple approaches them because they want to divorce, the council will advise them to seek a civil divorce first, but this is not possible if the couple only had the Muslim marriage ceremony, the Nikah, and not a civil ceremony recognised by UK law.
According to Ms Hasan, the Koran states that if a woman doesnt want to stay with her husband she cannot be forced.
Tehmina Kazi responded to the Sharia council by saying: It goes without saying that, like all legislation, the Bill can only do so much to safeguard women from unjust treatment. The role of voluntary sector organisations in helping women to make informed choices is equally vital.
But the message that comes out of most of our roundtables on religious arbitration, time and time again, is that existing legislation is not being enforced properly in these cases. It is my hope that the Bill can provide a salve for some of these concerns, and assist women whose struggles for justice and equality are stuck within the system.
Baroness Caroline Cox said: I have the deepest respect for Tehmina Kazi with her commitment to trying to address many of the problems faced by some women in Britain today.
During the time I have been working with Tehmina I have gained deep admiration for her courage, commitment, her pursuit of the truth and concern for people suffering from discrimination and social problems of society. In this connection I am especially grateful for the support for my Private Members Bill which seeks to address some of the forms of discrimination against women.
The Muslim community cares about the rights of women and the problems they face in society and I hope they will support the Bill.
The first reading of the Bill was heard in June last year and the second reading, which will see a debate on all aspects of the Bill, is yet to be scheduled for this year.