Panorama: Secrets of Britain's Sharia
Councils will be broadcast on Monday
8 April at 20:30 BST on BBC One
BBC Panorama has uncovered fresh evidence of how some Sharia councils in Britain may be putting Muslim women "at risk" by pressuring them to stay in abusive marriages.
In a small terraced house in east London, a woman and her husband argue before an Islamic scholar who sits on a dais above them in a room that looks and feels like a court.
This is Leyton Islamic Sharia Council, and Dr Suhaib Hasan will decide if the woman can have a divorce. Her husband is refusing to grant her one and the couple have been coming here for a year.
She accuses him of refusing to work, ignoring the children and verbally abusing her. He vehemently denies it. When Dr Hasan orders the husband to leave the room, the woman breaks down in tears.
"I hate him, I can't even bear to look at him, he has ruined my life," she sobs.
Dr Hasan sends the couple away for another month to try to save their marriage, with the help of Allah.
Leyton Islamic Sharia Council is Britain's oldest Islamic council and one of the most active, hearing about 50 cases a month - mainly marital disputes. Nine out of 10 are brought by Muslim women from all over the country.
He's not even allowed near
my house and because I am
frightened, I can't face him...
but they didn't take any notice"
With an Islamic marriage, it is far easier for a man to divorce. The only way for women is through these councils.
"We are not here just to issue divorces," says Dr Hasan.
"We want to mediate first. We try to save marriages so when people come to us we try to reconcile them."
But Islamic rulings given here are not always in the interests of the women concerned, and can run counter to British law.
In Leeds I met Sonia, a woman who suffered extreme violence from her husband, who punched and kicked her and threw her down the stairs. He also hit their son. When Sonia got a civil divorce, the courts would allow him only indirect access to the children.
Sharia courts are not allowed to interfere in child access matters, but when Sonia went to Leyton Islamic Sharia Council for a Sharia divorce, they told her she would have to give the children up to her husband.
"I couldn't bear the thought of such a violent person having my children," said Sonia.
"What was shocking was when I explained to them why he shouldn't have that access to the children, their reaction was - well, you can't go against what Islam says."
Sonia stood her ground and eventually got Leyton Islamic Sharia Council to drop their demand.
The council told BBC Panorama that when a marriage ends the question of access to children for both parents is crucial. Safety is paramount, it says, and any UK court order must be followed.
We had seen the public face of Leyton Sharia Council, but we sent an undercover reporter to see what advice they would give a vulnerable female client. Her story was that her husband was hitting her.
The government says domestic violence is a crime which should be reported to the police.
But Dr Hasan told the undercover reporter: "The police that is the very, very last resort. If he becomes so aggressive, starts hitting you, punching you of course you have to report it to the police, that is not allowed."
He went on to tell her that reporting the abuse to the police would be a final blow and she would have to leave the house and go to a refuge. He said that was a very "bad option".
His wife, a counsellor at Leyton Islamic Sharia Council, also told the undercover reporter not to go to the police but to involve the family instead.
When Leyton Islamic Sharia Council were asked about the secret filming, they said it may be essential to involve the police and other authorities in cases of domestic violence but it can be a step with irrevocable consequences.
We showed our secret footage from Leyton Islamic Sharia Council to Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for the North West.
Mr Afzal, himself a Muslim, said: "I'm disappointed but not surprised. Most of them [Sharia councils] are fine but there are some clearly like this who are putting women at risk."
He described what he had seen as "dangerous" because if people were deterred from seeking help they could suffer significant harm.
I met another woman who had tried to get a divorce from a different Sharia council in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.
Ayesha's husband was in prison for violence, but Dewsbury Sharia Council told her she would have to go to mediation with him.
"I said I can't do that because he's not even allowed near my house and because I am frightened, I can't face him... but they didn't take any notice," she said.
Eventually Dewsbury Sharia Council agreed to see her without her husband but she had to face five men alone without legal representation. It took her two years to get a Sharia divorce.
Dewsbury Sharia Council said they could not comment on individual cases but they were aware of the standing and gravity of UK court orders and would never advise clients to breach them. They said they could arrange separate meetings on different days to avoid such breaches.
The women I met say Sharia councils need to be held accountable and investigated, and although they eventually freed themselves from unhappy marriages there are other women in Britain condemned by religious councils to miserable lives.