Canada: Gender, cultural, religion: Looking for the balance in a multicultural society

Toronto Star
What happens "when rights collide"?
True story: man kills wife, stabbing her in the neck 19 times with a steak knife, is convicted of first-degree murder and appeals on basis that she was unfaithful and, as a devout Muslim, he was protecting family honour.
Nice try, and maybe elsewhere in the world Adi Abdul Humaid might have been acquitted. But the United Arab Emirates citizen made the mistake of murdering Aysar Abbas in Ottawa in 1999 and, ultimately, the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected his appeal.

Superior Court Justice J.A. Doherty said that had Humaid killed his wife for religious beliefs, that alone would have been "a motive for murder." But it was a moot point because Doherty didn't buy Humaid's new religious devotion and, in his 2006 ruling, concluded the story lacked credibility.

Nevertheless, the judge was concerned enough about the nature of the defence argument to write: "The alleged beliefs are premised on the notion that women are inferior to men and that violence against women is in some circumstances accepted, if not encouraged. These beliefs are antithetical to fundamental Canadian values, including gender equality."

So there you have it. Fundamental Canadian values. They exist. Although the case didn't set a charter precedent – say, gender rights over religious rights – the judge couldn't have been clearer in signalling his position. Some lawyers interpreted his comments as a warning about trying to use religious freedom to justify murder.

Perhaps it's not such a stretch to be thinking about such arguments. Already, there is growing controversy over women's rights in our multicultural society, whether over wearing the veil to vote in Quebec or the practice of polygamy among B.C. Mormons. Doesn't it say something about the status of women's rights when polygamy, illegal under the criminal code, is allowed to continue?

No wonder Toronto academic Janice Stein is worried. Increasingly, she is speaking out about the potential for women's rights to be trumped by competing religious and cultural traditions. "There is no question that there is a conflict between equality rights, on the one hand, and the right of freedom of religion, on the other," Stein writes in Uneasy Partners, an upcoming book of essays about multiculturalism and rights. "The law recognizes that conflict, but we need to ask hard questions about the balance between them."

Stein, who teaches at the Munk Centre for International Conflict Management, argues that Canadians shouldn't feel smug about protecting equality rights. She finds that people "tiptoe" around safeguarding gender rights. And Stein fails to find solace in the fact that Canadians, particularly in multicultural Toronto, like to pride themselves on their ability to get along or (using a Supreme Court term) find "reasonable accommodation" with one another.

Not everybody agrees with Stein who, for example, bristles at her rabbi's belief in the "separate but equal" treatment of women and challenges the right of religious institutions to receive charitable status when, in her view, they discriminate against women. And yet, whatever their opinions, women told the Star they want to talk about this issue. They agree there should be dialogue and debate about what happens "when rights collide," as former Ontario NDP attorney-general Marion Boyd puts it.

We spoke to two dozen women in recent weeks, asking how they see gender rights in a multicultural society. In their words, they want to explore, discuss, debate, uncover, educate and demystify.

For Boyd, the answer is simple: the rule of law prevails. That was her argument in her 2004 report urging the Ontario government to continue to allow religious law – including Muslim sharia law – in the arbitration of family disputes, as long as people retained the right to appeal to the civil courts. Instead, Premier Dalton McGuinty banned religious arbitration.

Admittedly, the subject is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. Views are passionate, often contradictory. Minefields lurk in every word and concept.

Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Maytree Foundation, which focuses on social justice, cautions: "Don't position women's rights versus multiculturalism. There's too much baggage in that term, and it should never be either/or. Rather, it should be: how do we protect the rights of women in an inclusive and diverse society?"

Are we doing enough to protect women? What's our collective responsibility? What are the flashpoints over competing rights? Where do the challenges lie? What are the experiences? And do women's rights always come last?

From the trenches of social activism, Avvy Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and South Asian Legal Clinic, argues that "equality rights are not trumped, they are just ignored. If you look at the decisions of the courts, they always talk about something else first.. . . They are afraid to open the floodgates because the courts in general have a very hard time understanding equality rights."

The paranoid, post-9/11 world adds another level of fear. Alia Hogben, president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, sighs audibly over the telephone before saying: "I hope this is not going to become a story about Muslims, not just a story about whether we as a group are being accommodated. It's so important not to do that."

Unconscious racism slithers in so effortlessly. Should it be pointed out that nowhere in the Qur'an would Adi Abdul Humaid have found the murder of a woman portrayed as a holy act? Or is that being too preciously politically correct?

Societal pressure points aren't restricted to any one group. Arguably, the country's most controversial decision affecting women came recently when the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal said it lacked the authority to hear a complaint about the practice of polygamy in the fundamentalist Mormon community of Bountiful.

Olivia Chow, NDP member of Parliament for Trinity-Spadina, blames "fundamentalist everything" for causing problems for women. "The whole issue of fundamentalism is very dangerous. It is the reading of religious tenets as the ultimate truth that tries to exert social control over women," says Chow. Women have the right to choose for themselves, including whether they want, say, an arranged marriage. But it must be their choice.

There's the rub. How to know? The consensus among women we interviewed is that education is critical. Services must be provided across the board in every community, including shelters for abused women and counselling, and women must know what resources are available.

Ramandeep K. Grewal, active in women's issues in the Sikh community, says it's not about religion. She sees Sikhism as free of gender bias and instead posits that "Punjabi culture is very male dominated. It's macho and chauvinistic in many ways. It's not a religious conflict; it's a cultural conflict."

Public tensions have been reasonably fleeting in Toronto – at least to date. A TTC bus driver refuses to allow a veiled Somali woman to use her Metropass. A cab driver with orthodox beliefs exhibits problems dealing with a female passenger. A magazine editor recounts the story of a friend being told by one such taxi driver: "I don't take orders from women."

But for the most part, conflicts have been in Quebec, mostly over girls wearing the hijab headscarf. And, in a supremely bizarre case, the village of Herouxville (pop. 1,500), northeast of Montreal, passed a municipal "code of life" claiming their town wasn't partial to the stoning and/or burning of women and that wearing a veil publicly wouldn't be permitted except on Halloween.

Hogben argues the clothing issue should be important only when safety or identification is involved. Otherwise, a woman should wear what she pleases, be it bikini or veil. Often, she intuits deeper resentments at play: "There's a lot of feeling among older Canadians – `Why don't you all just fall into line?' " Hogben makes a final point. "There must be a lot more public discourse about what is expected of newer immigrants," she says, adding the dialogue should begin outside Canada. "Tell people what to expect in this country. Tell them that women's equality is fundamental in Canada. Hitting may be part of one's culture but we don't permit it here.... Sorry, hitting women is not allowed in Canada."

At least not in theory.

Another good place to start talking.

By: Linda Diebel

May 28, 2007