Sometimes a television programme raises far bigger questions than it actually gives a platform for, which is the case with Panorama’s The Secrets of Britain’s Sharia Courts (BBC1, Monday). Wedged in this half-hour slot are explosive issues such as the sovereignty of British law, the role of religion in arbitrating on marital disputes, and the place of women in Islam.
The show adopts a feisty, no-holds-barred approach in this piece of investigative journalism presented by Jane Corbin, yet has strange ellipses at certain points that leave huge questions dangling. At one juncture, Corbin says, ‘The previous government gave up on its attempt to investigate sharia councils. They couldn’t get proper access to them.’
Eh? Is that all it takes to fall off the radar of official probity, to be inaccessible,
unavailable, incommunicado? Did ‘the previous government’ — one assumes that refers to Labour — stumble at the first hurdle of its investigation because things got a bit complicated? And by ‘couldn’t get proper access’, does that mean that the authorities were prevented from knowing what goes on in sharia courts, and found this state of things acceptable? Yet there is no follow-up to those two thundering sentences.
Still, some chilling things are exposed. The programme zooms in (literally, with secret cameras) on the plight of women who, having sharia marriages only and not civil ones, have to rely on the Islamic courts. It sends an undercover reporter to consult the Leyton Islamic Sharia Council, the country’s oldest, posing as a woman who’s being beaten by her husband. Domestic violence is a crime in Britain, yet she is advised by the council’s chief, Dr Suhaib Hasan, to approach the police only as a last resort. The good doctor seems sceptical of her problems.
‘He actually beats you?’ he asks. ‘Severely or just…?’ (he waves his hand). ‘It leaves some bruises on your body?’ Hasan suggests the woman instead chat with her husband.
She should say: ‘Why are you upset? Is it because of my cooking? Is it because I see my friends? So I can correct myself.’