Wednesday, August 18, 2004

More on Canada and the Sharia Law

I wrote about this topic some time ago. Canada has a system of arbitration where religious bodies are allowed to arbitrate certain legal disputes. This has been widely used by people of various religions, including the muslims who use the traditional sharia law in this. But recently the whole idea has provoked controversy in Canada, starting with the decision of a group of muslims to formalize the use of sharia. Here is a summary of the issues in the debate:

Sharia is a centuries-old Islamic system of justice based on the precepts of the Koran. It's legally used by religious scholars and imams in Ontario to mediate a narrow range of disputes - from clashes over property and inheritances, to matters in marriage and divorce.
Proponents say it is the only way Muslims can live true to their faith. Critics see it as an unsettling expansion of a system that stones women and hangs apostates in the street.
The Ontario government redrafted legislation in 1991, granting religious leaders the authority to mediate civil matters. The law, called the Arbitration Act, was designed to help unburden an already over-taxed court system. At the same time, they hoped it would enhance the country's official doctrine of multiculturalism, the notion that a society is made richer when ethnic groups are encouraged to share their cultural expression and values. Rabbis and priests have also used the act to adjudicate squabbles over everything from dietary rules to monetary disputes between parishes.
But critics of sharia charge that, in this case, the principles of multiculturalism are being exploited to enforce oppression. They argue that the practice of sharia in Canada undermines the country's Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it discriminates against women.

The discrimination against women consists of the fact that the sharia gives men more rights than women in cases of divorce and child custody. One critic of the law is Alia Hogben, president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women:

What bridles those like Ms. Hogben is a system of justice in which divorcing women are cut off from spousal support after three months. The system also awards divorcing men with custody of the children as well as the bulk of the marital assets. Participation under the Arbitration Act is voluntary, though critics say Muslim women can be pressured in participating.

Being cut off from spousal support after three months could indeed cause serious problems for any muslim woman who has not been in the labor force, thinks traditionally and does not have other relatives in Canada. The awarding of custody is a painful matter in all divorce courts, but especially so in a court which will not even give you a chance to get custody, I would think, and not being able to retain many marital assets would complete the psychological and economic destruction. Why would any woman then choose such a system of arbitration? The answer of course could be social pressure which might be quite efficient, especially if the woman in question is also very religious.

Those who advocate the law are astonished by the publicity this debate has gained:

"A lot of the hyperbole and the foreboding of doom is just nonsense," says Mubin Shaikh, a spokesman for Masjid El Noor, a Toronto Mosque. "No one is advocating amputations in the public square. We accept that the Charter of Rights is supreme. Sharia won't be used to contradict that supremacy."

Still, it seems likely that the current review of the Arbitration Act has been affected by the protests of those who fear the treatment of women under sharia. Marion Boyd who is spearheading the review and Pascale Fournier, a legal scholar, both believe that the law will be substantially overhauled to protect human rights. This might mean that divorce and child custody cases could be removed from its domain, and thereby also from the domain of the sharia.