Even by the low standards of English lawyers, the men and women who run the Law Society have behaved like shameless hypocrites. Instead of confining themselves to offering professional advice, they set themselves up as Islamic theologians.
In a practice note on Sharia-compliant wills, the Law Society advised the 125,000 solicitors in England and Wales to urge Muslim clients to discriminate against women, non-Muslims, adopted and ‘illegitimate’ children.
‘Male heirs [should] in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir,’ it said, and ‘non-Muslims may not inherit at all’. Likewise ‘illegitimate and adopted children are not Sharia heirs’ and should not be left a penny.
The Law Society was not upholding the old Common Law principle of ‘testamentary freedom’ – that we are free to dispose of our wealth as we please, however eccentric our decisions may seem to our friends or children. On the contrary, it took it upon itself to uphold one version of Sharia (it never said which reactionary cleric provided it) and told lawyers to instruct Muslim clients, who may be weak or close to death, that the Law Society’s was the holy way to dispose of their property.
A century ago, one could have safely assumed that lawyers who treated women and illegitimate children as second-class citizens would have been conservatives. I was fascinated as well as repelled by the Law Society’s behaviour because it showed how the world has been upturned. Today supposed liberals replicate the prejudices of yesterday’s Tories.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, ‘chair’ of the Law Society’s Equality and Diversity Committee, gave every appearance of being a decent feminist. Shocked that fewer women than men were taking home seven-figure pay pots as partners in wealthy law firms, she marked International Women’s Day with a ‘speed networking’ get-together in the City for women lawyers whose talents were being ‘woefully underused’ by the prejudiced male establishment.
Rich women are entitled to far treatment as much as anyone else And I would not mock her concern for equality, if it had not vanished, when the case of Muslim women, who are unlikely to see as much money in a lifetime as a partner City law firm makes in a year, confronted her.
Across the liberal world, you can find supposed anti-racists displaying the racist belief that women with brown skins should have fewer rights than women with white skins. Objectively, the liberals who deny rights and go along with oppression are not so different from the imperialists of the 19th century. What marks them as something new is their multicultural belief that the liberal, righteous and ‘culturally sensitive’ way to behave is not to demand fair treatment for all but to cave into the demands of religious misogynists, as long as – and this is an important caveat you must remember at all times – those religious misogynists do not threaten the interests of white middle-class women.
I do not have the words to describe how sick my comrades in the Asian women’s rights movement are of the double standards of fair weather feminists.
Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters, Maryam Namazie, of One Law for All, and Gita Sahgal of the Centre for Secular Space, and many others sent an open letter to the Law Society saying, accurately, that it was endorsing discrimination against minority women and children and accommodating:
‘Highly gender discriminatory religious laws that are being increasingly defined by religious fundamentalists in our society. This is a source of immense concern to those of us who have for so long contested gender discrimination in our communities and fought for the freedom of women and children.’
I don’t know if a sudden wave of shame overcame the Law Society. I don’t know if the private protests of solicitors had an effect. But for whatever reason, the Lawyers Secular Society, an admirable body which represents the best traditions of the English law, announced today that the Law Society had written to say:
‘We have reviewed our practice note on Sharia succession principles following your feedback, and that of our members and other stakeholders. Following this review, we have withdrawn the note and it will no longer be available through our website. We have no plans to amend or replace the note. We are mindful of the criticism we received and we apologise.’
A victory, then. And not a small one either. Because of the campaigning of secular lawyers and feminist activists, Muslim women will not have the entire English and Welsh legal profession working against their interests when their men die. The rest of us, meanwhile, know that we should savour our victories when they come, and can sit back and enjoy the spectacle of anti-racist racists in full retreat.