Courting agency: Gender and divorce in an English sharia council

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Sharia councils have been in existence in England since the 1980s, providing advice and guidance in matters of Islamic family law. The vast majority of their users are women applying for Islamic divorces. The ulamā (scholars) at the councils encourage reconciliation and only grant divorces where this is deemed impossible. This paper, based on observations at a large sharia council in East London, supplements earlier institutional analyses by focusing not on what the ulamā are doing, but on what women are doing at the council. The paper identifies a spectrum of compliance with the council and its procedures, ranging between those who say they just want what the sharia wants, to foot-dragging, actively contesting the ulamā and exiting the council. Further, these forms of engagement may change over time. Overall, the paper contributes by illustrating the complexity of British South Asian Muslim women’s identities and affiliations and engaging with questions of gendered agency. It is clear that even when women petitioners contest, confront or exit the council, they may inscribe their moves within, rather than in opposition to, Islamic norms and values. The paper draws out the wider political implications of this non-opposition between Islamic subject positions and agency.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-43
JournalContemporary South Asia
Issue number1
Early online date27 Feb 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Feb 2022


  • sharia councils
  • women
  • South Asian Muslim
  • religiosity
  • agency
  • everyday resistance


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