Local Muslim clerics accused -
SOME Muslim religious leaders in Victoria are condoning rape within marriage, domestic violence, polygamy, welfare fraud and exploitation of women, according to an explosive report on the training of imams.
The report says some imams apply Sharia (Islamic law) when it benefits men but not when it benefits women, and that they hinder police from pursuing domestic violence charges.
Women seeking divorces have also been told by imams that they must leave "with only the clothes on their back" and not seek support or a share of property because they can get welfare payments.
And the report says some imams knowingly perform polygamous marriages, also knowing that the second wife, a de facto under Australian law, can claim Centrelink payments.
The report is based on a study commissioned and funded by the former Howard government and conducted by the Islamic Women's Welfare Council of Victoria.
It was presented yesterday at a National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies conference at Melbourne University.
It is the result of extensive community consultation, interviews with police, lawyers, court workers and academics, and meetings with and questions to the Victorian Board of Imams.
The board's role is to provide an Islamic view and religious guidance to the community and represent it to the media. The report claims that the 24-man board ignored or did not directly answer many of the questions.
It says women, community and legal workers and police involved in the consultation were particularly concerned about domestic violence, and suggested that imams aimed to preserve the family at the cost of women.
When cases came to court they were often dropped after family and community elders pressured women to withdraw charges.
The report says some women who were legally separated but not religiously divorced had their husbands enter their houses, demand sexual intercourse and take it by force.
"Workers who have assisted women in this situation said that the advice women received from the imams was that it was "halal" — permitted — because there was a valid "nikah" — marriage," it says.
The report also cites sexual assault allegations connected with under-age marriages.
It says polygamy is steadily increasing and gaining acceptance among Melbourne Muslims, and Shepparton police report many "de facto" relationships that are really polygamous marriages.
"Community workers who have provided support to women whose husbands took another wife religiously said that women blame the availability of Centrelink benefits … since one or the other wife will be claiming it, relieving the husband of the responsibility of supporting two families," the report says.
Community members quoted in the report believe that imams' narrow religious training in an increasingly complex world, lack of life experience, poor English and lack of understanding of Australia create problems for the community. For example, ill-informed comment by imams drew a wedge between the mainstream and Muslim communities.
The report suggests the Muslim community believes many imams are ill-equipped for the role, which involves much higher expectations in Australia than in predominantly Muslim countries, including marriage counselling, pastoral and spiritual care, marriages and divorces.
"They come from their own little village and culture and say this is what Islam is," one woman is quoted saying. "They come from a village where there is no running water and electricity, and they bring their dark ideas into this country."
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