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'Sharia is not the problem'
Tucked away in Leyton, east London, is Britain's oldest sharia court. Entirely innocuous, there are no signs promoting its presence, nor anything in its façade to suggest the gravity of the decisions made within its four walls. Once a corner-shop, and haphazardly arranged into an office space with the help of temporary partitions, it is now the site of hundreds of judgments each month based on the requirements of Islamic law. Yet, in the 25 years since its inception, it has not presided over any of the stereotypical cases associated with sharia law – not one hand has been cut off, norfornicator flogged. Rather more prosaically, penal law is never addressed – the fatwas (judgments) all concern personal issues such as divorce, financial arbitration, family disputes and inheritances.
It is here that Hibah Khan, 38, is currently trying to divorce her husband. She was brought up in England and her parents instilled in her both western and Islamic values. She met her husband on a holiday in Pakistan. "He was good-looking, educated – a doctor – and we had similar backgrounds," she says. "We liked each other and kept in touch." A year later, in late 1990, they got married in Pakistan. "I decided that following our wedding I would move there," she says. "I was in love, excited, and although I was working as an accountant in London I wanted a change; I was pretty naive."
The differences began to surface immediately. On the wedding day itself, the groom's family shocked Khan by demanding a dowry. "In Islam, the groom is meant to give a gift to the bride," she says. Although she had been married before, at the age of 21, she'd never lived with her then-husband and the marriage was annulled through a sharia court. "My new husband had said that he didn't mind about me being divorced, but once we were married it was clear he thought my family and I should be very grateful that he had married me. That really shocked me. I was very independent, living and working in London, and then there I was, living in a village to please my in-laws."
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