Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Rule of Law

2.17 pm

Baroness Park of Monmouth rose to call attention to the case for maintaining the rule of law and ensuring that respect for other cultures does not infringe upon the right of United Kingdom citizens to protection under the law, particularly in the field of education and marriage; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, earlier this year, thanks to the efforts of that admirable Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed and is to come into effect this November. It is not my intention today to address the deeply serious issues of honour killings, forced, rather than arranged, marriage and genital mutilation. My concern is with the effects on civil society and community relations arising from the existence of two parallel legal systems: Sharia law with its own courts, and our own civil law, the law of the land. We are, however, tacitly accepting the formal Muslim view that Sharia itself must be regarded as the ultimate criterion of justice when measured against the law of the land. That has practical consequences. We are, by not challenging that out of respect for another culture, failing women and children in particular. We are tacitly accepting a parallel legal structure.

Muslim women who are British citizens are being deprived of their rights—property rights, for example. Women marrying in the mosque, a ceremony which is not a civil contract, forfeit their claim to compensation in a divorce. In a country which fought for votes for women and for the Married Women’s Property Act, numbers of British women are excluded from their rights, although under Sharia law women do have the right to own and inherit property.

This situation exists because we have for some years been more concerned to respect other cultures than actively to protect the interests of citizens of this country—women and children, who are part of that culture. That policy has not only allowed injustice, it has deprived the country of much talent. As Principal of Somerville, I met many remarkable young women such as Mayy Yamani, or Humeira Khan—one of our Rhodes scholars—and a number of doctors, lawyers and academics from that world. There should be many more, and my objective today is to remind us that

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1178

there are aspects of Sharia law which do active harm in terms of the national interest, in particular, in the increasingly combustible area of civil society. When we condone the practice of allowing girls to be withdrawn from school from 12 years old onwards so that they may be sent to Pakistan to marry and thus facilitate the entry of a young husband who may be illiterate and innumerate, we are not only allowing her to be unlawfully deprived of education, when she is required by law to be educated up to the age of 16, but the country is losing a potentially skilled and valuable citizen. This is being done with the connivance of the schools on the grounds—as I was told when I visited a school in Bradford—that the council believes we must respect the culture of the Muslim community.

Some schools continue to put this first today when they are asked to display notices advising young Muslim girls threatened with forced marriage where to go for help. When I raised the issue of early withdrawal of Muslim girls from schools during Committee stage of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, I was told that they might just be going off for a family holiday in Pakistan in order to renew ties with their culture. That is entirely desirable. My problem is: do the schools inquire about them after the holidays? My late and much admired friend Lady Faithfull used to raise this issue too. She and I were both concerned that girls whose education ended at 12 and whose husbands often allowed them little freedom in society, would have much less to offer their children, who in turn come to school ill-prepared. A well-educated mother can and will make a significant contribution to the skills of her children. Equally, we should be insisting that those entering the UK on the basis of marriage to a British citizen should be required to take steps to become literate and numerate before they are accorded citizenship. It is in our interest, as well as theirs, to make them qualified to get work, and it would be much better for civil society and race relations. Education opens windows. We should not allow our own female citizens to be deprived of access to the world of ideas and action by tacitly accepting their situation.

If there were more action in the UK on this issue, the admirable Foreign Office team which helps young women who are in Pakistan against their will might have less to do. I am concerned that, in failing to enforce the law, we are not only failing these girls, we are losing valuable citizens with the ability to make a serious contribution to the life of the country. Fortunately, I know a number of honourable and wise Muslim fathers who are proud to support their daughters in securing university education and professional skills, but perhaps there are not enough of them. One final point on that issue, Her Majesty’s Government can do nothing but good in protecting women and children in the difficult area of forced, not arranged, marriage. It is sometimes thought that the girl in flight who comes to the police or a hospital for help should be directed to an Asian member of staff who will best understand the problem. Experience shows that he or she may put his Sharia duty first and inform the family.

I have a further concern which will be shared by many of the responsible and wise members of the Muslim community. Many British citizens are having a hard and increasingly difficult life with many economic

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1179

pressures and tensions today. Such issues as the demand for housing and the availability of welfare have become very important. Polygamy, as the House knows, is recognised under Sharia law. In this country, however, it is illegal. I asked the following Question earlier this year:

I received the reply,

However, it is difficult to know how HMG reconcile this reply with the regulations in the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992. The guidance manual currently in use by local authorities gives the following provision:

That enables the husband to secure not only housing benefits for each of his wives, but, presumably, some entitlement to housing for each. It is already a cause of deep resentment in the community that housing has all too often had to be allocated in recent years, for instance, to refugees when the local man or woman has just reached the top of the list. But to know that a fellow citizen who is actually breaking the law can benefit by it causes bitter resentment. It is no way to bring about good relations between communities.

Equally, there is room for anger in the field of education arising from the politicisation of what may sometimes be taught in our schools. In 2006, a pilot teaching-pack on citizenship for children from 12 to 16 was sent to schools in a London borough. It was funded by the Government's Neighbourhood Renewal programme and entitled, 9/11: The Main Chance. It invited pupils to imagine organising a terrorist attack. What terrorist targets were there in the neighbourhood, and what weapons and methods should they use to achieve a good result? For good measure, it included links to websites alleging that Dick Cheney directed the attacks and that the US air force shot down United flight 93. There was also a link to a website on food terrorism and how fast-food chains could be attacked. The producers claimed—and I think believed—that these packs had been intended partly to enable pupils to,

and partly,

I am glad to say that the pilot packs were withdrawn. The Higher Education Minister rightly said that citizenship classes should be used to give pupils a stronger sense of British identity and that teaching all children about British culture and traditions would allow all children, including Muslims, to integrate better into society. The makers of the pack believed they were teaching children to “see the other side” and to understand

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1180

angry young Muslims. They forgot the honest anger of all British citizens, including the vast majority in Muslim communities who, while always putting Sharia first in many matters of conduct, wish to live at peace with their neighbours, hate terror as much as we do and do not wish to see it justified.

While absorbing what is good in other cultures, we should not confuse tolerance, a British virtue, with the condoning of wrong, nor should we be afraid to remember and celebrate our common past. I spoke to a class of boys in Bradford who, though they were “doing” slavery in their history lessons, had never heard of Wilberforce and knew nothing of the Royal Navy's part in arresting slavers. I spoke to them of the comradeship which existed between the British and their grandfathers when they fought side-by-side in Burma. They knew nothing of that. I told them to ask their grandfathers. One did so and wrote to me to say that he had learnt much.

We should support the peaceful majority in the community by taking energetic steps to act against those mosques which, often funded by Saudi money, allow their premises to be used to propagate hate literature. That is not what a mosque is for. We must ensure our universities are not used in the name of freedom of speech to promote active jihadist doctrines or, disgracefully, anti-Semitism. These measures, designed to counter the promotion of hate, represent no threat to Sharia but reassure both peaceful Muslims and ordinary Englishmen of every class and religion.

Respect for the right of the Muslim communities to conduct their lives according to Sharia law should be matched by equal respect for our own Christian religion. From the little I heard of the Minister’s statement on the previous debate, which I was sad to miss, that has already been said most strongly. I can only say it again. We should note the lack of support shown by many local authorities, and indeed by Government sometimes, to Christians of every denomination. If a useful enterprise, for instance, designed to keep deprived and unhappy children off the streets—and I know of such a case—is seen to be connected with a Christian entity, it will be refused support on the grounds that the eligibility criteria do not allow funding for groups which “promote religious beliefs”. When it comes to official funds to support charitable activities concerned with the needs of deprived youth groups from every background, the authorities are often reluctant to help any enterprise with Christian connections because of the message they believe it sends to the Muslim community. However, it does our relations with devout Muslims no good to be seen to reject our own Christian church, even when it is not proselytising but merely doing social good for a whole community.

Respect for the right of Muslims to conduct their lives according to Sharia law should be seen to be matched by equal respect for our own religion. We recognise that strong feeling over events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine is genuinely felt by many Muslims as well as by many non-Muslims, but we say nothing about the widespread persecution of Christians in countries where Sharia law rules. We should not behave in our own Christian country as if Christianity were politically unacceptable, however good our motives.

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1181

We need to reassure the peaceful Muslims and the ordinary English men and women of every class and religion that all citizens will receive the protection of the law, that a distinction will be made between respect for other faiths and tolerance of people and ideas which are alien to our world and wish to destroy it. If the country at large cannot feel that we respect ourselves and that the priority is the common good and justice for all, slow to anger as our countrymen are, they too could become angry, and that would be a bad day.

I had not intended to do it, but I shall tell a story at the end. It is relevant to women. At one time when I was serving in Africa, in Zambia, I had occasion to go to a far part of the country. The governor of Zambia at that time—it was Northern Rhodesia then—asked me to take a letter to the paramount chief saying that Her Majesty had awarded him an MBE; this would be a very good introduction. He reminded me that I should not leave the presence of the paramount chief without having received a present from him; this would be grave discourtesy. I knew that because I had encountered the same rule in the Congo.

So I went and I presented the letter. We sat in great amity in a very hot hut surrounded by people, and we drank warm beer for what seemed to me like several days but it was probably several hours. The time went by but no present emerged. I thought, “Can I leave? Do I stay? Has it all changed?”, and then through the crowd there came a man wriggling on his tummy up to the paramount chief and holding something. He gave it to the paramount chief and the paramount chief turned to me with an expression of extreme relief on his face, clutching this object. He said, “As you well know, it is the custom that I should present you with a present before you can leave my presence on these ceremonial occasions”. I said, “Yes, paramount chief, I did know that”. He said, “The problem is that you are a woman”. Slightly huffily I said, “Well, you have two daughters who are chiefs”. “Oh”, he said, “that is not the problem! We had not got a suitable present. How could we give you a spear or a bow and arrow or something like that? We had to make a special present for you, and here it is”. It was a hoe. Women dig in Africa.

I used to tell my undergraduates that story when they were feeling rather uppity, and it was very salutary sometimes. I think perhaps it is salutary even today that we should remember that women sometimes get relegated to rather odd corners of society, but that in fact they have a very important part to play. I beg to move for Papers.

2.33 pm

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for instituting this debate on subjects which are both timely and urgent and which gives me an opportunity to speak once more about that great wrong that has been done and is being done to womankind worldwide. It is being done to young United Kingdom citizens by those who flout the law, usually through ignorance of it but sometimes with contempt for it. I have spoken about it many times before but I know it is a subject that meets with great sympathy in your Lordships’

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1182

House and is not, I hope and believe, something with which listeners lose patience. But this afternoon I would like to say something also about the history of female genital mutilation and the traditions and rituals which surround it.

Deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structures, it is a blatant example of gender inequality and like the practice of dowry and child marriage and the now abandoned foot-binding in China, represents society’s control over women. In Africa it is an ancient procedure first observed, it is said, by the Crusaders. But it is older than that and may well predate the coming of Islam and even of Christianity. The explorer Richard Burton probably mentioned it in the vast work he wrote on sexual practices in the Middle East but we shall never know. His prudish wife Isabel read it after his death and, shocked to the core, burnt it lest such a work came to damage his reputation. Here, incidentally, may be the place to point out how a mealy-mouthed recoil from speaking about genital mutilation, and when it must be referred to, alluding to it by the euphemism “female circumcision”, has done much to maintain it.

In 1929 the Church of Scotland mission to the Kikuyu in Kenya attempted to break down the custom of clitoridectomy by demanding that all their followers and those who wanted their children to attend mission schools should pledge themselves not to support this initiation rite. Teachers too were asked to denounce the custom. The question was first raised here in another place and a committee of MPs, including the Duchess of Atholl, was appointed as early as 1930 to investigate. However, it was agreed that the best solution was to leave it to the people concerned to choose what custom most suited their changing conditions. Some European delegates to a conference in Geneva in 1931, held under the auspices of the Save the Children Fund, urged the abandonment of this, of what they called “a heathen custom”. But the general opinion was for the people to be left to choose. In the main they chose to retain it. Unfortunately, it is these decisions to adhere to a custom generally deplored that have contributed to widespread genital mutilation in Africa today.

So began respect for a culture which includes an appalling practice. Women suffer a lifetime of pain and degradation without ever speaking of what has caused their suffering. There can be no other procedure on earth, therapeutic or cosmetic, not only so harmful but so entirely pointless as FGM. How deformative it is may be deduced from the reaction of midwives in the 1970s when, on first seeing the results of FGM in African immigrants, believed that they were looking at a congenital malformation of the genitalia.

Many African countries have passed laws to ban it but making female genital mutilation illegal seems to have little effect. It is often practised in parts of Africa even when it is known to inflict harm on girls because the social benefits deriving from it are considered to be higher than its disadvantages. In spite of laws forbidding it and its disabling, painful and disfiguring results, in these societies FGM is thought necessary for the correct upbringing of a girl and as part of her preparation for adulthood and marriage. The practice may be part of

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1183

coming-of-age rituals and the girls themselves may wish to undergo the procedure as a result of social pressure from peers and because of fear of stigmatisation and rejection. Girls are given rewards, take part in celebrations and receive gifts. So, however painful, however likely to store up pain and the disturbance of gynaecological function, it may confer a sense of pride and a feeling of community membership. Even here in London, among Horn of Africa communities, girls have been heard to ask each other, “Have you been cut yet?”. Those with enlightened parents absorbed into a United Kingdom culture may feel left out

Among the Kikuyu it was taboo for a man to have sexual relations with women who had not undergone FGM. And it is a desire for a good and successful marriage which may account for its persistence. It is believed that the practice ensures and preserves a woman’s virginity and, without going into anatomical details that would be inappropriate here, it probably does. Strangely, it is also thought to make girls “clean” and beautiful. No holy text prescribes it, yet most women who have suffered it are Muslim because Islam is the prevailing faith in the countries from which they or their parents have come. Many who have suffered it are Christian; so much for those Save the Children delegates who called it a “heathen custom”. Some are animists. Its practice is upheld by local structures of power and authority. Some doctors of medicine, and older women who have themselves been mutilated, support it and see efforts to combat it as an attack upon their culture and way of life.

Strong support for the protection of the rights of women to abandon FGM is found in international treaties including the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on Civil and Political Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Female genital mutilation violates many human rights principles, including the right to life when the procedure results in death—as it does in 10 per cent of cases in certain parts of the Horn of Africa—and the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Parents who decide to have their daughters genitally mutilated believe that the benefits outweigh the risks, but this perception cannot justify an irreversible and life-changing practice that violates a girl's human rights. Even when a girl herself desires the procedure, her decision is in fact the result of social pressures and community expectations. In this country, the culture embedded in our own culture supports this attitude in spite of all efforts to end it and in spite of two Acts of Parliament making it an offence punishable with up to 14 years’ imprisonment. I do not think that FGM has ever been mentioned in your Lordships’ House without some noble Lord asking if there have yet been any prosecutions under the 2003 Act. The answer is always no.

Though we may respect a culture, we must first respect human beings. People are of greater importance than tradition. More valuable than any custom or tradition, however enshrined in history and general acceptance, is one single small girl who is at risk of

19 Jun 2008 : Column 1184

having her life and body ruined by this practice. The number of women calculated to have undergone female genital mutilation in the United Kingdom is almost 270,000, and 15,000 children living here are estimated to be at risk of joining them.

2.43 pm

Baroness Cox: My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for introducing this subject and providing us with the opportunity to consider one of the most challenging issues confronting our country today. I will focus on an important issue already highlighted by the noble Baroness: the creeping implementation of Sharia law in this county and the associated constellation of beliefs and values held by significant numbers of citizens.

I have no wish whatsoever to impute anything undesirable about the vast majority of Muslims, who are peaceable, hospitable and law-abiding citizens, or to generate any ill feeling towards them. However, this is an important subject because Sharia law is in many ways infringing the rights of UK citizens to protection under the law in the fields of marriage, freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page