As the case of Afsana Lachaux's shows, its reach extends far beyond the Middle East
Afsana Lachaux, a British woman who sought to have her divorce issued by a Sharia court in Dubai overturned and replaced by a British divorce, has been ordered to pay her ex-husband’s legal costs of £94,000. Afsana is seeking legal rights to see her child, and a divorce granted under British law would allow her to argue for those rights. But the British judge, Mr Justice Mostyn, backed the previous ruling by Sharia judges in Dubai, and Afsana is facing bankruptcy.
In 2013 the Dubai courts granted sole custody of her son, Louis, to the father Bruno Lachaux, a French Catholic. In 2015, he successfully persuaded the French court into recognising and ratifying the Sharia divorce and child custody rulings. Afsana, with the support of feminist campaigners, appealed against this ruling in the French higher court and won. The court found the ruling ‘manifestly discriminatory’ and sexist. So, expecting a British court to endorse the ruling of another European court and against the Sharia one, she applied for a divorce in London, where the couple had married.
But Mr Justice Mostyn ruled against her, and the Court of Appeal in London agreed, ordering Afsana to pay Lachaux’s legal costs. Permission to appeal at the Supreme Court was also turned down earlier this year.
By the time Afsana filed for a British divorce in 2016, she had not had any contact with Louis for three years.
Sharia is available to all expats in Dubai, although most choose to use the system of their home country. Lachaux chose to use a Sharia court, applying for a divorce and sole custody of Louis. He was granted both. It is not surprising: a divorced mother is forbidden by law to travel outside the UAE with her child without written approval from the child’s father. In 2014, the UAE passed a “children’s rights” law requiring all women to breastfeed until their child is two.
Sharia courts and councils also enjoy the support of some non-Muslim establishment figures. In 2008, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams said: “There’s a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law, as we already do with some other aspects of religious law.”
Afsana has no rights as a divorced woman under British law and is left with six hours in total per year to spend time with her son. “I want Louis to meet his UK-based grandmother and his brothers,” says Afsana, “and to come to my home. Is that really too much to ask?”
Dubai is not the forward-thinking democracy the holiday brochures would have you believe, and women are officially second-class citizens. This is why it is particularly disturbing that Mr Justice Mostyn referred to Dubai as a “friendly nation” during court proceedings. It may well be for men, but it certainly isn’t for women and their children.