THERASA May's review of sharia courts has been branded a "whitewash" before it has even begun, with more than 200 individuals and human rights groups signing an open letter urging her to dismantle the panel chosen to oversee the inquiry.
They claim that by appointing an Islamic scholar as chair and placing two imams in advisory roles, the panel's ability to make an impartial assessment of how religious arbitration is used to the detriment of women's rights will be seriously compromised.
Signatories include Gita Sahgal, the director of Centre for Secular Space and a former head of Amnesty International's gender unit, the playwright Julia Pascal and the Iranian-born human rights activist, Maryam Namazie.
They say the "narrow remit" of the review, which starts collecting evidence this month, has a misplaced focus on seeking out "best practice" among sharia councils rather than questioning their very existence.
While there are three legal experts on the panel, critics claim the role of chair should have be given to a judge rather than a theologian and that female advisors or those that advocate for them should be included.
Ms Namazie told The Independent: "The law and not religion should be the basis of justice for citizens. We are calling for an impartial judge-led inquiry that places human rights, not theology, at the heart of the investigation."
Sharia councils have no enforcement powers and operate on a voluntary basis with consent of both parties. Sharia law does not supersede UK law. Either party, if dissatisfied should be able to seek redress in the UK courts. However some women who attend sharia councils are not aware of their rights or are cowed by community or religious pressures.
The review, announced in May as part of the Government's counter-extremism strategy and due to be completed by 2017, is to be chaired by Mona Siddiqui, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh and a regular presenter of the Thought for the Day slot on Radio 4's Today programme. Family lawyer Anne-Marie Hutchinson, barrister Sam Momtaz, and retired high court judge, Sir Mark Hedley will also sit on the panel.
The Home Office said the panel will examine the ways in which sharia may be "misused or exploited" following concerns that some sharia councils were working in a discriminatory fashion by seeking to legitimise forced marriage and issuing divorces to women that were "unfair and contrary to the teachings of Islam".
May said at the time: "A number of women have reportedly been victims of what appears to be discriminatory decisions taken by sharia councils, and that is a significant concern."
Women's rights groups initially welcomed the move as a rare opportunity for the state to examine the resurgence of Islamism via sharia courts and its impact on gender equality.
But Ms Namazie, who set up the campaign One Law For All, said they now fear the review, which states it will "seek out best practice among sharia councils" could lead to their endorsement.
She said: "Far from examining the connections between religious fundamentalism and women's rights, the narrow remit of the inquiry will render it a whitewash. It seems more geared to rubberstamping the courts than defending women's rights."
Their concerns were detailed in a letter published this week on the website Open Democracy.
They wrote: "It is patronising if not racist to fob off minority women with so-called religious experts who wish to legitimate sharia laws as a form of governance in family and private matters.
"By making religious appointments, the Government has lost a vital opportunity to examine the discriminatory nature of not only sharia councils but all spheres of religious arbitration including the Batei Din [Jewish court]."
However, Ms Siddiqui said the desire of campaigners to polarise religion and law demonstrated a "profound misunderstanding of sharia".
She told The Independent: "Being a theologian doesn't mean I'm not thinking about human rights or legal parameters. The last thing I want to be involved in is something which is seen as propping up a system that is not working to the advantage of men and women irrespective of their religion."
Ms Siddiqui, who said the panel would start collecting evidence this month, insisted the voice of women's rights advocates would be heard.
Hameeda* is a 70-year-old mother and grandmother and this is her experience of a sharia court operating in a London borough:
"In February 2016, my husband Hafeez died after many years of ill health. His final year was very difficult for me as he had Alzheimer's and this was painful to watch.
"When he died I was in a state of shock but did not realise how difficult my life was to become. When he died my sons went to speak to the Imam at the local mosque and he said they must speak to judges at the sharia court. We are now living by the rules this judge has set.
"The sharia court said I had to remain in Iddat [period of waiting] for 40 days after my husband's passing. I was not allowed to go to the telephone, the front door or even go into the garden during this time in case a man was to see me. I felt like a prisoner.
"Then, four months after my husband's death, I came under a lot of pressure from my sons to sell my house and give them money. They were told in English law I own the house I live in but this is not the way in Islam and the property should be given to my sons.
"I cry every day because I don't know what's going to happen to me.
"What about my daughters? The judge said the girls are only entitled to a third, but as I am still alive they will have to wait until I die to get the money. I do not want to give up the home I worked so hard to make.
"I have never heard of cases like this - not in Pakistan or the UK. What is this new Islam that can threaten to take the roof from the head of an old woman like me? I am a prisoner in my own home. I do not feel safe. I am so tired of all this. Please help women like me and stop the judges destroying our lives."
*Names changed at contributor's request
"I've already received a number of requests and everyone is welcome. I wouldn't waste my time doing this if I just wanted to whitewash or ignore the concerns of Muslim women," she said.
"As a Muslim woman myself I'm interested in why we have sharia councils in the first place but also why are younger people using sharia councils?"
She added: "If people are using this [sharia] for arbitration or mediation, and find that helps … then that's fine. But if people are saying a woman has to stay with her husband or she loses custody of her children, then that goes against UK law and absolutely that is wrong."
Asked why there wasn't a woman from the Muslim community advising the panel, Ms Siddiqui said women had been approached but were reluctant to come forward.
She said: "The imams are advising us because they have the ear of the community but that doesn't mean what they say will be taken necessarily as right or wrong."
However, campaigners have claimed one of the imams holds very traditional views that sit at odds with women's rights. They allege that comments made by Sayed Ali Abbas Razawi, a former member of the Majlis Ulema Shia scholarly group, suggest he supports the death penalty in Islamic states, promotes negative views about homosexuality and believes Western clothing is a sign of corruption.
They refer to footage posted on YouTube in 2014 of Mr Razawi giving a lecture at Montreal's Shiane Haidery centre. In the clip he is heard to state "homosexuality will increase… zinaa' [a sin of sexual intercourse] will increase in our society".
Since The Independent made enquiries about the video it has been made private.
In another clip, posted in December last year, he tells an audience at an Islamic Centre in Milton Keynes: "Sometimes your enemy can even come as your ignorant friend… Do not socialise with a jahil because a jahil will cause you problems." 'Jahil' refers to those ignorant of Islam.
Mr Razawi, who says he carries out inter-faith work, strongly refutes holding views which oppose women's rights. He told The Independent: "I'm a philosopher. Those particular lectures were on certain traditions and were not my opinion."
The second imam advisor to the panel is Qari Muhammad Asim who is attached to the Leeds Makkah Masjid, one of the UK's largest mosques.
Pragna Patel, director of the charity Southall Black Sisters, questioned the choice of imam advisors over those who advocate for women victims of sharia councils. She said: "This review is effectively pre-determined. It is saying let's identify bad practice and see what we can do to make it compatible with UK law but this is not about splitting hairs between 'good' and 'bad' Islam.
She added: "We should be asking why are parallel legal systems flourishing and what harm are they doing? The abuses can only be addressed in a framework of human rights."
In their letter, campaigners said there was "considerable evidence" to show that sharia courts are violating women's rights with respect to marriage, divorce, custody of children, property and inheritance.
They point to the recently published book Women and sharia Law by Elham Manea and have launched a crowd-funding campaign to get a copy into the hands of every MP and peer.
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