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Complexity, difference and 'Muslim Personal law': rethinking the relationship between Shariah Councils and South Asian Muslim women in Britain

By Samia Bano


At the outset of the twenty-first century and despite the challenges presented by the global networks and communities, conceptions of culture, religion and rights in the West remain firmly situated within the moral frameworks of western universalism and cultural relativism. Indeed it seems that the uncertainties of local and global conditions have only served to entrench cultural and religious diversity as fixed, bounded and uncontested. A striking feature of this development in the West has been the rigid adoption of liberal multiculturalism to accommodate the emergence and settlement of diasporic minority ethnic communities into mainstream society. More recently, the specific cultural practices that can lead to intra-family inequalities for women from minority ethnic communities as generated much discussion in political and social theory. While much of this literature has contributed to our understanding on the relationship between gender equality, justice and the limits of liberal multiculturalism, it also seems that the fluid and contradictory understanding of identities has been lost and replaced by the acceptance of culture as essentialized and homogeneous. In this context we have also witnessed the emergence of a 'culture of rights' and the 'politics of recognition' under the framework of human rights. Yet in the process the contestation over 'meanings' and the intermeshing and complexity of cultural and religious practices have in essence been lost, only to be replaced by static and fixed definitions of culture, religion, identity and community.\ud It is within this context of liberal multiculturalism that we have seen the emergence and development of unofficial non-statutory bodies identified as Shariah Councils in Britain. Framed as sites upon which family law matters are resolved according to Muslim family law they have developed frameworks that are characterized by specific cultural and religious norms and values. This mobilisation of communities challenges the hegemonic power of state law and unsettles the multicultural project in its attempt to reconfigure social and legal discourse in matters of Family Law. Most interestingly, for the socio-legal scholar this process opens up the conceptual space in which to see in evidence the multiple legal and social realities in operation, within the larger context of state law, liberal multiculturalism and the rights discourse.\ud This thesis explores the ways in which these bodies constitute as unofficial dispute resolution mechanisms between and within the context of local 'community' and the overarching determinancy of state law. Of particular concern is how gender is transformed through the position and participation of women in this process of 'privatized dispute resolution'. The discourses produced by the participants in such processes constitute and transform understandings of British Pakistani Muslim women that are significant to their position and autonomy in the family, home and community. Drawing upon fieldwork data and interview material the study explores the socio-legal reality of these women's lives in relation to the complexities of attachment, belongingness and identity that multicultural society introduces

Topics: KD, BP
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