Civil rights campaigners are angry that ministers have approved plans to allow Sharia councils in Britain the right to settle disputes regarding money, property and access to children.
They say such tribunals are institutions for male domination which treat women like second-class citizens.
Couples who choose to use the Sharia system must get the ruling rubber-stamped by a judge sitting in an ordinary family court.
But neither party has to attend this hearing and approval can be obtained by filling in a two-page application.
The endorsement of Sharia was announced to MPs by Bridget Prentice, a junior minister, in answer to a parliamentary question.
She said Sharia councils would still have no jurisdiction in England, and rulings by religious authorities would have no legal force.
But she added: “If, in a family dispute dealing with money or children, the parties to a judgement in Sharia council wish to have this recognised by English authorities, they are at liberty to draft a consent order embodying the terms of the agreement and submit it to an English court. This allows English judges to scrutinise it to ensure that it complies with English legal tenets.”
Campaigners condemned the plans as unacceptable and said that the rulings were not compatible with English law, while the Conservatives insisted that should be safeguards for women.
Nick Herbert, the shadow justice secretary, said: “There can be no place for parallel legal systems in our country.
“It is vital that in matrimonial disputes where a Sharia council is involved, women’s rights are protected and judgments are non-binding.”
Another Conservative spokesman, Paul Goodman, the shadow minister for communities and local government, accused the Government of keeping the public in the dark and warned: “There must be one British law for everyone.”
Dr David Green, the Director of the Civitas think tank, said: “I think there are a number of problems with regards to Sharia law. These Sharia councils are supposed to operate under the Arbitration Act which allows citizens in a free society to settle their disputes on a voluntary basis if they so wish.
“But that legislation assumes that both parts are regarded as being equal. I think the problem is with tribunals like these you can’t always be sure that women would be treated equally.
“Under Islam a man can divorce a woman just by saying I divorce you three times. But a woman must go to a Sharia court to seek a divorce. Often the ruling goes in favour of the woman, but I think on the whole these councils are institutions for male domination. As a result I do not believe these rulings and proceedings should be recognised under British law.
“Under the traditions of Sharia law the voice of a women is not equal to that of a man.”
Thanks to Matt for this one:
The Archbishop of Canterbury says the adoption of certain aspects of Sharia law in the UK “seems unavoidable”.
Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4’s World at One that the UK has to “face up to the fact” that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.
Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion.
For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.
He says Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.
In an exclusive interview with BBC correspondent Christopher Landau, ahead of a lecture to lawyers in London on Monday, Dr Williams argues this relies on Sharia law being better understood.
At the moment, he says “sensational reporting of opinion polls” clouds the issue.