Recently, the Ontario government announced that it would review plans to use Islamic law to settle family disputes. While this was not exactly what Homa Arjomand, Coordinator of the International Campaign against Sharia in Canada, and other women activists wanted to hear, the fact that the government agreed for a review, marks a minor victory. Activists like Arjomand and Alia Hogben of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women (CCMW) would rather that the plan is disbanded altogether.
On June 10, 2004, Attorney-General Michael Bryant said, "We are looking at what the options are, aware of the fact that it (an institute that plans to apply the Sharia law) will not be up and running till later this year..."
The controversy arose after the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice asked for the setting up of Islamic or Sharia courts in Ontario. This demand implies that marriage, family and business disputes would be settled according to Sharia, a body of laws and rules "inspired" by the Quran.
In October 2003, the institute, headed by retired solicitor Mumtaz Ali, submitted a proposal to the government. And an approval was granted under the aegis of the Arbitration Act 1991 which allows religious groups in Ontario to settle family disputes. Hassidic Jews have been settling their own disputes in accordance with Jewish law for years, as have the Catholics and Ismaili Muslims. The only stipulation here is that the rulings (which are binding) should be consistent with Canadian laws and Canada's charter of rights.
Ali argues that this stipulation should quell any misgivings regarding the fate of women's rights. In fact, he claims that on issues such as divorce and inheritance, Islamic law gives more rights to women than the secular Canadian law. "Muslim women," he pontificates, "can get the best of both worlds."
Arjomand and Hogben however, disagree entirely. Such courts, they say, will be detrimental to women's interests; and there is no need for these when women have access to a progressive Canadian legal system that ensures women's equality. They also dismiss the contention of Sharia law proponents, that participation of women in these proceedings will be purely voluntary. The activists argue that there is a high possibility of women being pressurized by the community and the family to participate in Islamic courts.
Most at risk are young immigrants, who come from the Middle East or North Africa, where Sharia has been used to subjugate them throughout their lives. If Sharia courts were to function here (in Canada), says Arjomand, many women will be socially and psychologically coerced into participating. To refuse would mean rejection by their families, the community, or worse.
Arjomand marshals her experience as a transitional counselor with women - particularly immigrant women and refugees, many of whom come from countries that enforce Sharia law - to buttress this claim. This one-time professor of medical physics in Iran was forced to flee her country; her family arrived in Canada in 1989 as refugees.
"Women are not equal under it (Sharia)," says Arjomand, "therefore it is opposed to Canada's laws and values." She and other campaign activists met with government representatives to put their view across. In a May 7 letter to Arjomand, John Gregory, general counsel to the attorney general, acknowledged "the oppression that some Muslim women experience in Canada". But that was not reason to deny the Islamic Institute the right to use the Arbitration Act, he said.
India-born Alia Hogben, president of CCMW, got a similar response. While Hogben is a devout Muslim, Arjomand is a non-believer. But the movement against Islamic courts has been drawing women from across the spectrum. Hogben says there is enough documented research to show that wherever Sharia is enforced "it is not pro-women". When Canadian law has the same fundamentals as the basic principles of Islam like compassion, social justice, and equality for men and women, she says, why go looking for "another set of laws that are controversial"?
The two women go a step ahead and call for a re-examination of the Arbitration Act to remove family matters from its ambit. They are engaged in an exercise to highlight the shortcomings of this act, and argue that cases affecting women and children should be under family law and not the arbitration act. Women do have the option of appeal on a ruling of an arbitration court. "But then," says Arjomand, "they have to do so within a short stipulated time. And most women, who are still in trauma, are neither physically, emotionally or financially in a position to appeal."
Arjomand goes so far as to say that the Ontario government may be agreeing to let the rights of Canadian Muslim women be trampled upon out of fear of offending the community's male leadership. She is also skeptical of the assumption that decisions contrary to Canadian law will show up before the courts.
Sharia-approved but illegal activities already occur in Toronto, she claims. Muslim women are battered but they don't dare report this; and bigamy exists. Besides, among her clients are two 14-year-old girls who were married in 2003 to older men, in defiance of Ontario law prohibiting marriage before age 16.
So, why have Sharia at all? Says Ali, "Living by religious law is our whole life." In facilitating Sharia, he says the Ontario government shows itself as the most enlightened in the world. "This is the multiculturalism of my friend Pierre Trudeau," he adds.
"A false argument," retorts Hogben. "Multiculturalism was never meant to take away the equality rights of a group, in this case Muslim women." And Arjomand goes a step further and argues that the bogey of multiculturalism often leads to communities becoming insular and prevents them from integrating into the mainstream.
The State and religion must be kept separate, says Arjomand. "Your beliefs should stay in your home, in your mosque, your church, your temple. We (Canada) should remain a secular country with no separate rules for some groups, not when they discriminate against women."
While the recent announcement of a review has injected optimism in the activists, it has not made them complacent. Both the Campaign and CCMW are currently engaged in planning activities to bring pressure to scrap this move. A web campaign calling for a halt to the Islamic courts has already got the support of 3,111 people