The Sikh Court: Parallel Justice Systems are a Danger to Women

We are alarmed by the establishment of a Sikh Court in the UK.

Spokespeople for The Sikh Court describe it as an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism operating within the provisions of the Arbitration Act 1996. They expect it to deal primarily with family matters and gurdwara conflicts. They have alluded to three key objectives –

  • to keep Sikh marriages and families intact and reduce divorce rates
  • to cut legal costs by charging a minimal amount and ensuring speedy conflict resolution
  • to help Sikhs avoid delays within the secular civil court system.

These actions are presented as a form of seva (selfless service) that will enhance access to justice for Sikhs in the UK.

For several decades, Southall Black Sisters (SBS), One Law for All and other organisations in the UK have highlighted the ways that religious bodies actively undermine and obstruct access to justice and violate the rights of minoritised women, children and religious minorities within those communities. This is particularly the case for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, who are consistently pressurised to mediate with violent and abusive partners and extended families, as well as concede to child access demands even when these jeopardise their safety and the wellbeing of their children. To date, there is no evidence that religious institutions have acted in the best interests of the most vulnerable within our communities, no matter how many women are involved in the running of the institutions. There is, however, considerable evidence that they have strengthened the power and control of husbands, male family members and mothers in law, and violated human rights.

Moreover, religious ADRs in the UK have been founded by men with narrow, conservative, and/or fundamentalist views of women, marriage and the family unit. They are religio-political projects that are deeply invested in the institution of marriage and patriarchal family structures and tied into wider political projects on community self-governance. There is no evidence that they are apolitical and benevolent agencies motivated by social justice and equalities. Indeed, the examples given by spokespeople of The Sikh Court amount to support for coercive control, significant undermining of women’s autonomy, and the right to freedom from religion. In one example, a Sikh woman’s reason for divorce is presented as a petty overreaction to her husband not washing his own underpants when it turns out that the woman had been struggling with the overbearing presence of her mother-in-law. In another example, a woman is criticised for cutting her own and her son’s hair while her ex-husband’s ‘religious rights’ are defended.

SBS have made evidence-based submissions to government and to The Law Society. These submissions cite a range of case examples (Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish) on the discriminatory practices of religious arbitration bodies which effectively institute parallel legal systems over families within minoritised communities. Despite attempting to distance itself from the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal and Shariah Councils because of widespread critique of these bodies, The Sikh Court is no different in its objectives.

While representatives of The Sikh Court claim that they are not a religious court because they defer religious judgements to the Akal Takht in Amritsar, they will operate on amorphous ‘Sikhi principles’ which are themselves open to interpretation and debate. They lay claim to ‘equality’ and ‘integrity’ as key principles but if this is so, why not focus energies on ensuring that the UK legal system delivers on those? More worryingly, if they are not a religious court, why have their members pledged an oath of allegiance to the Panj Pyare and the Akal Takht, a religio-political edifice in Punjab that has wide reaching influence over Punjabis around the world?

Religious conservatives seek to impose their political projects and their particular version of the religion through a range of legal avenues, educational projects and social welfare services. SBS have documented the ways that they have capitalised on cracks within government policy and the shrinking welfare state, including severely restricted legal aid provisions and a burgeoning pressure on the secular court system, to increase their own capacity and legitimacy to govern and police the lives of minoritised communities. In fact, the Sikh Summit Report that accompanies this development precisely lays out a plan for enlarged self-governance of Sikh communities in the UK. Sikhs in Britain are not homogenous, yet just one version of Sikhism lies at the heart of these initiatives. This will invariably lead to the institutionalisation and privileging of this one interpretation of Sikhism and give rise to further accusations of blasphemy and apostasy against those that pose a challenge to their interpretation and authority over Sikhs in the UK.

We the undersigned, call on our communities and public bodies to:

  1. Renounce the need for The Sikh Court and any other religious tribunal.
  2. Recognise that religious bodies discriminate against women and children.
  3. Demand one law for all.
  4. Join forces with others to lobby the government and the existing secular civil and criminal courts system to ensure that everyone has access to good representation and legal aid and can pursue their cases through a secular legal system.
  5. Call on government not to allow the Arbitration Act to be used in family matters as this discriminates against women and girls.

Religious leaders do not speak for us! One law for all!


  1. Southall Black Sisters (SBS)
  2. One Law for All
  3. Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
  4. Dr Sukhwant Dhaliwal
  5. Professor Ravi K. Thiara
  6. Professor Aisha K. Gill
  7. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Playwright
  8. Professor Avtar Brah
  9. Professor Virinder S. Kalra
  10. Kiranjit Ahluwalia
  11. Professor Kiran Kaur Sunar
  12. Dr Permala Sehmar
  13. Dr Sunny Dhillon
  14. Baljit Banga
  15. Yasmin Rehman
  16. Rights of Women
  17. Mandip Ghai, Solicitor
  18. Juno Women’s Aid
  19. Women’s Aid Federation of England
  20. Anah Project
  21. Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA)
  22. Respect
  23. Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation
  24. IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services)
  25. Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation (MEWSO)
  26. Laïques Sans Frontières (LSF)
  27. Professor Sundari Anitha
  28. Professor Geetanjali Gangoli
  29. Dr Fiona Vera-Gray
  30. Jo Lovett, Researcher
  31. Dr Maria Garner, Researcher
  32. Dr Nikki Rutter
  33. Professor Catherine Donovan
  34. Pratibha Parmar, Filmmaker
  35. Rana Ahmad, Atheist Refugee Relief Founder
  36. Jayne Egerton, Broadcast Journalist
  37. Mandana Hendessi, Author
  38. Alice Bondi
  39. Ibtissame Betty Lachgar, Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties (M.A.L.I.) Morocco
  40. Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President
  41. Dr Rose Rickford
  42. Mariam Oyiza Aliyu, LETSAI NGO
  43. Nadia El Fani, Filmmaker
  44. Ahlam Akram, BASIRA British Arabs Supporting Universal Women’s Rights
  45. Dr Savin Bapir-Tardy
  46. Paminder Parbha
  47. Cinzia Sciuto, MicroMega
  48. Maryam Namazie, Campaigner
  49. Atieh Niknafs, Anti Theist Activist
  50. Secularism Is A Women’s Issue (SIAWI)
  51. Marieme Helie Lucas, Campaigner
  52. Professor Purna Sen
  53. Dr Christophe Clesse
  54. Professor Anna Seymour
  55. Dr Windy Grendele
  56. Yehudis Goldsobel, Policy Officer, Charity Founder and Advocate for better safeguarding in faith communities
  57. Stephen Evans, Chief Executive Officer, National Secular Society (NSS)

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