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.’
Dr Hasan also recommends the undercover reporter consult his wife, who runs a TV show giving advice to Muslim women. The missus wonders if the woman is to blame for her own abuse. ‘Did you, before he come, try to dress up, have make-up, get ready or not?’ And: ‘Before he come home, the food is ready, the house is clean, and you are ready as well?’ When the reporter asks if she should go to the police, Mrs Hasan clicks her tongue and shakes her head, advising she seek out her in-laws instead.
If there are women who are wed only by sharia and not civil law, then when they are unhappy or abused by their husbands, can’t they just flee and be free? After all, they’re not legally bound to their partners. But complexities arise over such things as custody — the women have to stick with the sharia system if they hope to keep the children. Also, because such sharia marriages were formed apart from British law, there’s nothing to ensure that the female party will get a share of the couple’s wealth. A ‘divorce’ granted by sharia would at least ensure some of her rights.
The burning question, of course, is why a parallel justice system has been allowed to take root alongside the national one in the first place. Corbin says the current government argues that all the sticky problems brought up in sharia courts are already accounted for under British law. Which leaves the question: how to ensure their actual enforcement? This is a topic that needs far more than a 30-minute treatment, crying out for access, as it were.
On to sex. Channel 4’s The Sex Clinic (Thursday) is one of those bothersome programmes masquerading as ‘observational’ documentaries when actually they’re being voyeuristic about people’s private lives. It takes a look at patients with sex-related problems visiting the Chelsea & Westminster and Birmingham sexual health clinics, two of the busiest in the land. Mind you, the show’s participants don’t seem bothered about their privacy either, agreeing to close-ups of their penises and genital warts.
We have no idea if patients at these clinics ever have more run-of-the-mill issues — you know, a husband and wife with fertility questions, a long-term couple coming for their regular screening. Instead, in the first of three episodes, we get transgenders, dominatrixes and a host of people who engage in one-nighters.
‘Mistress Jezebel’ likes violent intercourse and takes clients of the same persuasion. Because her sexual acts often involve blood spillage, she has to go for health check-ups every so often. There’s a scene of her using nipple clamps on a male patron, who shrieks with terrible pleasure. Then she pokes needles into those nipples as he shivers and writhes.