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An Interview with Gita Sahgal on Secularism, Pluralistic Democracy, and Religious Courts (Part Three)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/07/22


Gita Sahgal is the Executive Director of the Centre for Secular Space. She discusses: secularism and pluralistic democracy; Sharia courts; most judges as men in religious courts; impacts of the community through ostracism.

Keywords: Centre for Secular Space, Gita Sahgal, pluralistic democracy, secularism, Sharia Courts.

An Interview with Gita Sahgal on Secularism, Pluralistic Democracy, and Religious Courts: Executive Director, Centre for Secular Space (Part Three)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview edited for clarity and readability. Some information may be incorrect based on audio quality.*

*This interview was conducted November 13, 2016.*

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The roots, by which I mean that which it embeds in, seem two-fold. One, the nature of secularism as a must in pluralistic democracies. On the other hand, the nature of religion. On the first, the former, secularism is a must because this permits everyone freedom to or from religion.

In that, if an individual society, partially or fully theocratic, then it will basically support one religion over all other religions and irreligion. In addition, you can even have a pluralistic but only religion.

In some countries, like the United Arab Emirates, you cannot sign yourself as irreligious in your marking, even if you are an expat and not necessarily an Emirati. On the latter, the nature of religion, to me, seems to be that it is not only a comprehensive worldview theory but also a comprehensive practice.

It embeds itself in all aspects of society. We saw it in Christendom. We see it during the Caliphate. We see it in other parts of the world. Therefore, in secular democracies where they give up their power of secular rule of law and socio-cultural contexts, then religion will begin to fill in the hole that it probably considers itself to have a rightful place too.

Gita Sahgal: Yes, there is an aspect of Britain, which is particularly tragic. Unlike the US, the British, as a whole – and I think this is across minorities, were not religious. One, Britain is not a religious state. Two, the Queen is the head of the Church of England. The Church of England is the established church of the state.

But as a Christian state, you are free to believe what you want. Because it is fundamentally a liberal society, not the state. A lot of social life is lived around the religious community. You have America as a secular state where there is a huge marketplace of religions.

As we found with the Trump campaign, there is an evangelical strong vote. There is no power of evangelicalism in Britain politically. In Britain, Christianity has no real political force. People do not go to church.

Even if they call themselves religious, and then put it down, they tend not to attend church. Society is very secularized. Yet, for political reasons, the government is promoting religious groups. One of the reasons and this is t least related to the Rushdie affair.

“There is the Christian stuff. Therefore, in the interest of equity, we will have other faiths.”

Jacobsen: Right.

Sahgal: We have Christians as lawmakers, not simply Christians who are Christians but Christians who sit in the House of Lords. It is so bloated that it is bigger than the House of Commons. It is mad. It is insane that this is the case.

There are 800 people or something. It is bigger than the House of Commons. It is mad. Bishops are taking up the House. So, they have to put more Muslims, Hindus, other religious people into the Upper House. Not because of the societal reasons, but also because they want more of those religions.

These are state-funded Church of England and Catholic schools, so they had to allow Jewish schools – and so they had to allow Muslim schools. So, in the interest of equity, we have more and more religious discrimination in the religious arena.

[Laughing] that is what will happen with the Sharia courts as they have the Jewish marriage courts. So, they have religious marriage and civil marriage. There are a civil marriage and a religious marriage of minorities.

People are voting to promote religious marriage only. Then they are marrying more and more women because those marriages are recognized as not breaking the law.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Sahgal: It has become a social fact. Women are saying, “We are having these religious marriages to be respectable.” My generation: if you wanted to live with a man, you shacked up with him like a white person in this country, or your boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever.

They may get married or not. They may marry in middle age because their pension is coming up. So, they figure, “I might as well marry now” [Laughing]. They want to stay together anyway.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Sahgal: Muslims are making the same kinds of decisions as other people because of the hassle of their parents and some hide for a while. Then some eventually get married. They settled down. Now, you hear these young people influenced by fundamentalist versions of Islam.

They want to go over with some man who their parents approve of to have a religious marriage. Many feel as though they have to do that. Then the man wants to dump the woman with some children.

Then the woman finds the marriage is not recognized in English law. So, she can claim welfare benefits as a single mother, but she cannot dissolve the marriage and then she has no choice but to go to a Sharia court. People with civil marriages do this too. These are being allowed to exist.

Even though, there hasn’t been a huge demand for them. That is the horror of religion; people are not madly religious. They do not think that if you ask people if they believe in creationism and humans and dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time. That the world was made exactly as this 6,000 years ago.

A lot of the wrong views are erroneous views rather than strongly held erroneous views, probably. For them to have real influence, they would need to take advantage of the education system.

2. Jacobsen: If you take the Sharia courts or the education system, or arguing for human rights and women’s rights, what are some moves people can do to implement and instantiate women’s rights and provide a feeling of not feeling trapped to not have to go to Sharia courts for some women some of the time?

Sahgal: It is not where the groups exist that provide an alternative to women. The women do not go. The two organizations providing frontline services around domestic violence provide long-term therapeutic work with women.

We have been having a lot of attacks calling us secular extremists on the women, on Twitter and stuff like that. There is one woman who is attacking Maryam. Maryam said to look at these ex-Muslims being murdered. The woman said that this is not her problem.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] Wow.

Sahgal: What kind of response is that? [Laughing] that is anti-human rights approach, where it is not your concern. Nobody has a ban on what politics or views you hold for the provision of a service.

People come because they need a service. They need to leave their husband, have been facing their violence, need therapy, to talk to somebody in a safe space. The women may be religious or not or may move from one to another.

We do not evangelize people in that space. Nobody evangelizes in terms of how we deal with individuals who need help. Unlike, the Christian or the Muslim organizations where evangelization is built into their work.

We provide services where we think there is a need for services. We send them to where we think they will be served properly. We talked to the head of the Sharia council. They are encouraged to head there or told to go there. They may end up there.

But the fact is they do not end up there because they have detailed work and their own court work. Some end up there. It is harder, but then you have to do the level of work that you need. You do not have a one-size-fits-all form of service.

A lot of services that do domestic violence are getting worse and worse. We know it works. We are not talking about something we do not know about. Southall Black Sisters has generations of women. Who come in destitute with their children who are suicidal or contemplated suicide before they came in, this was something I was doing with service delivery in the 80s; their children are grown up and lawyers or things like that.

They do art design or something like that. They survive. Their children survive. They help them stand on their two feet and then get out of these religious services. We know it can be done. It can be done. It is not something out there. We are saying, “We have done it. We are doing it,” to understand that it is possible.

If you get someone who is running a Muslim women’s center and their main job is to keep a woman in Islam, a woman comes in and says, “I need help. I am in distress I need this divorce.” They will say, “Come with us to the Sharia court, we will take you there. We know the guys. They are very nice.”

There was a case of one woman giving evidence to the Home Select Committee. She said that she had taken more than 100 women to the Sharia court. How an organization lost funding because its service was so rotten, they lost funding, which was given to another group to provide for the service.

Nobody knew what was happening to women. There were not dealing properly with the cases because they did not think any religious solutions or putting women in the hands of these so-called Sharia judges.

It was allowed to be rotten. We are talking about basic common sense. We have an evidence base for it. Yet, it seems like something arcane. “Women want these services. We are told.” They want those services because they do not have any other services to go to.

They end up going there as their destination. As I said, one woman who works with the United Iranian-Kurdish Rights organization said, the Sharia councils themselves can be considered violence against women.

It is not some discriminate and others do not. It is systematic of the form of violence against women themselves.

3. Jacobsen: Are these judges mostly or all men?

Sahgal: They are not all men. There are some women. The women are as bad as the men and they out there on TV at the Home Select Committee. While all of the men run these operations. [Laughing] it is very interesting the rebranding going on.

They always call themselves councils. They cheated in divorce courts. They call themselves judges, issue rulings, and issue fatwas, and issue divorce certificates, which are not legal in any sense. However, they are treated as legal tender.

Not money, but no actual document; they say that they are mediation and arbitration courts now. It is getting to understand the endless academic accounts of having these Sharia councils and having women there and having them called mediation services.

These academics are wide-eyed to this [Laughing]. They are legal pluralists. You talk about secular democracy. There is a very, very strong argument for legal pluralism. In Canada, you have it around First Nations as secular groups, which denounce Canada in wanting their own laws.

There is a famous case called Lovelace. I am not sure who it came up in a human rights document. The Lovelace case was a woman who married out and lost her status as an Indigenous woman in a group, in her nation.

She was not allowed to hand down property or something like that. It showed even if the intention is supposedly progressive, which I understand with many of the First Nations is about long histories of oppression and marginalization and so on.

They feel they can best get it if they have their own cultural legal system-services and run internal courts according to norms that they want. They have been extremely restrictive on women’s rights. So, women have to be married within the group to pass on.

They are making things pretty difficult. Since then, they have done marvellous things. However, it is interesting that one of the cases against the human rights framework is by a woman who was denied her rights by the Indigenous court of her own group.

Not by the racist white system in that case. What happens, the racist white system allows people to fall through the cracks. What we find, when you have parallel systems, one system will set you back into the parallel system or will be hands-off.

They do not, in the end, protect your rights. The Supreme Court, they do not protect your rights. So, you have minorities having these systems in lots of different countries because there are whole systems of personal family law in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh.

In India, the Hindu person law got changed. It was not ended, but it ended polygamy. There was a reform in the 50s. In Pakistan, in the early 60s, there was another change. Pakistan-Hindu law, Hindu marriages are only just being allowed to be registered in Pakistan. Hindu law did not change.

It was horrific. In India, the law was not the problem. India was probably the most backward Muslims, or anywhere in the world, in secular India. Because where you have legal pluralism, the laws are not viewed as needed for minorities.

It is precisely a way to keep minority women subjugated in their own communities. The state says, “We are hands-off because we are listening to the community.”

Jacobsen: It is PR on the part of the state.

Sahgal: Yes, the state has always said that.

4. Jacobsen: Canada and the UK are a little different. Things would be different if you were a Brahmin compared to a Harijan in law but also in culture. That makes me think of the United Kingdom, where if a woman goes to a court system and gets the divorce.

Then it is accepted. How does that impact her life within the community in many cases that she has grown up in her whole life? Is there shunning and ostracism in general?

Sahgal: There has been some of that. Some women have to then build their lives. They get some professional qualifications. The two women in the case study. They were two older one. One woman rebuilt her life.

She got herself educated. Late in life, but she got educated, she remarried as well. So, she rebuilt her life. Some women, they may end up pretty isolated and devastated. Even if there is a women’s center in the community, like Southall Black Sisters, it becomes another community.

They have something to celebrate and come together. I am not part of Southall Black Sisters any longer, but I feel very emotionally attached to them. It becomes like an alternative community. I find some women stayed in the area and then do go on living their lives.

They do withstand that. Then there are lots of complicated and different stories. These groups where you can at least create a space like the Center for Secular Space. One is called Secular Spaces: Asian Women Organizing.

S, whatever society is doing, we can create our own space. It was an autonomous group. It was originally a black group – meaning Asian and African. It was a very, very out there space. Now there are a lot of African women because there are more Somali women who have settled in the area, into SPS.

It was autonomous. In that, it was a time when we felt that we were feminists and part of a broader feminist movement. We were not anti-feminist or anti-all white feminists. They were not taking on the same issues as us.

A much more problematic space for us. We wanted to deal more politically with those issues, but along with the domestic violence stuff. We began to raise issues of religious fundamentalism. In Britain, our first meeting had fundamentalism and International Women’s Day. We had the Rushdie days.

Then we were like “Why are we talking about religion?” rather than Solidarity with South Africa [Laughing]]. Why does it have to be about religion? Religion was not felt as much of a that at the time.

It is a threat. Religious fundamentalism is a threat. It was very much from that minority women’s perspective that we began to discuss these issues.

5. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gita.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Executive Director, Centre for Secular Space.

[2] Individual Publication Date: July 22, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


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