Canada: Montreal women criticize sharia

The Gazette
Faith-based arbitration seen by some as authoritarian, sexist, anti-democratic.
The notion of faith-based arbitration of family matters took another pummeling yesterday.
The Montreal-based group Rights and Democracy has sent a letter to Ontario's attorney-general expressing concerns about the impact on women's equality rights.

A report prepared for the Ontario government recommends allowing Islamic sharia law to settle family disputes.

"If the threat becomes more evident we'll go before the courts," said Jean-Louis Roy, the organization's president, who suggested they would do so with other groups.

"We are convinced we are setting a trend. That's where our worry lies," said Ariane Brunet, co-ordinator of the women's rights program at Rights and Democracy.

"Here is Canada, the peace-maker, the mediator. ... We have an image. And here we are, (considering) the sharia law."

The group was joined by representatives from Women Living Under Muslim Laws, an international solidarity network. Both contend the prevailing interpretation of sharia law - the Islamic code of religious law - discriminates against women.

"It's going to be absolutely detrimental to women," predicted Ziba Mir-Hosseini, who is with the network.

"We are not denying our Muslim identity and heritage. But we are saying that these laws no longer represent the justice of our religion," said Mir-Hosseini, a research associate with the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Laws at the University of London.

What women receive following a divorce under interpretations of sharia is "very limited," she said.

She also expressed concern that the debate in Canada seems to ignore the reality in the Muslim world of two different visions. One is an interpretation that uses sharia "as a cover for authoritarian purposes," she said, with no room for gender equality and democratic rights.

The other is a reformist approach that allows for modern demands, including a feminist reading of the sacred texts, she said.

Brunet noted there are 750,000 Muslims in Canada who come from countries with their own cultural input to the laws.

"Which sharia laws are we talking about?" she said.

In the letter to Ontario Attorney-General Michael Bryant, Roy warned that arbitration of family law under Ontario's Arbitration Act "has the effect of privatizing family law."

It does so, he said, by creating a parallel system of law that allows religious, cultural and political elites who organize arbitration procedures to choose the applicable law "with the option of circumventing Canadian law reform in family law that was obtained through a democratic process."

Homa Hoodfar, with Women Living Under Muslim Laws, said an objection she hears from Muslims is that "this thing came as a surprise to many of us in the community."

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2005