Ontario has authorized the use of sharia law in civil arbitrations. A group calling itself the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice will hold tribunals in which marriage, family, and business disputes can be settled according to fundamentalist religious law.

The rules that allow this go back to 1991, when Ontario sought to divert some of its civil caseload into arbitration tribunals. Tribunals, some run by religious groups (Hassidic Jews, Catholics, Ismaili Muslims), now handle divorces, child custody battles, and inheritance cases. Most are run by professionals trained in dispute resolution.

But sharia is different.

Sharia law is based on the Koran, which provides divine rules for behavior. It is strongly patriarchal, which is hardly surprising, considering it dates from 700 to 1000 C.E. No law, divine or not, codified in that era had anything like gender equality. Women who are "feared" to be "disobedient" may be cast out of the husband's bed (and he can take another in her place), and beaten. In Nigeria, it has been invoked to justify death by stoning.

Canada's Muslim population numbers more than 600,000, and the Toronto "Globe and Mail" reports that "many Muslims live in self-contained enclaves where there is little interaction with the outside world." Muslim women in Canada, even those who have been there for decades, often don't speak English, are poorly educated, and remain dependent on their families. They have no idea of their rights under Canadian law. Especially at risk are young immigrants, who come from the Middle East or North Africa, where sharia law and has been applied relentlessly. They know nothing else.

As the Globe and Mail put it, "The arbitrators can be imams, Muslim elders or lawyers. In theory, their decisions aren't supposed to conflict with Canadian civil law. But because there is no third-party oversight, and no duty to report decisions, no outsider will ever know if they do. These decisions can be appealed to the regular courts. But for Muslim women, the pressures to abide by the precepts of sharia are overwhelming. To reject sharia is, quite simply, to be a bad Muslim."

Indeed, the driving force behind the court is a lawyer and scholar named Syed Mumtaz Ali, who is quoted as saying "to be a good Muslim," all Muslims must use these sharia courts.

"There are safeguards built into the act," said Brendan Crawley, the provincial attorney-general's spokesman. "Participation must be voluntary by both parties and there is recourse if a decision doesn't abide by Canadian law. They can appeal to the courts."

But some Muslim women in and around Toronto have heard this before, and they're having none of it.

One of them is Homa Arjomand. "I chose to come to Canada because of multiculturalism," she said. "But when I came here, I realized how much damage multiculturalism is doing to women. I'm against it strongly now. It has become a barrier to women's rights."

Arjomand lived under sharia law in Iran. In 1989 someone tipped her off that she was about to be arrested and imprisoned. Many of her activist friends had already been tried and executed. She and her husband paid $15,000 to smugglers, then they and two small children (the youngest barely 1) escaped to Turkey through the mountains, riding on horseback, sleeping in barns.

Two years later, the onetime professor of medical physics arrived in Canada as a refugee. And how grateful she was to be in a secular country, where female equality was the law. All -- all -- of the women's activists she worked with in Tehran have been executed.

"The last thing I expected in Canada, the last thing I want, is sharia law," Arjomand says. "Women are not equal under it."

"In a straight disagreement between a husband and wife, the husband's testimony will prevail. That is sharia. Even those women who know they can appeal will not challenge an arbitration decision for fear of the consequences."

She tells of things she already sees in Toronto, in her work helping immigrant women in trouble. Battered Muslim who don't dare go to the authorities. Bigamy. She tells of two 14-year-old girls who were married last year to older men, in defiance of Ontario law prohibiting marriage before age 16.

"These girls were born in Canada," she said. "I want to tell them to leave and get them into group homes, but if they do they'll be disavowed and isolated."

Another is Alia Hogben, Indian-born president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. The council was never consulted about the new sharia courts, and it strongly opposes them. "A lot of money is being poured into North America from very traditional groups from Saudi Arabia and Libya," Hogben said. These groups are known for their intolerance to other versions of Islam.

The tribunals have set off a fierce debate in Toronto. Even the "Toronto Star," which usually seems far more outraged by U.S. attempts to overthrow Saddam Hussein than by repression of women in the Middle East, has come out with concerns about this, though they do not oppose it.

In an June 3 op-ed piece in the Toronto Star, she laid out her group's opposition to the tribunals. Like Irshad Manji, another brave Canadian Muslim woman, the CCMW members are true to their faith. Like Americans and Canadians of many, and no, religion, they choose to practice privately in a secular society.

In Canada, we can live fully as Muslims because of the values of fairness, social justice and acceptance of diversity. We should work with our fellow citizens when faced with injustices rather than segregating ourselves in fragmented communities.
But they have gone public in opposition to the government's plan, even though they anguish over the sad fact that doing so likely will bring disapproval on Canadian Muslims generally, among those who do not, or will not, make distinctions.
We fear that this discussion may increase anti-Muslim hostility, which, sadly, would be injurious for us as individuals and as a community. However, the issue is too important because it is about women's human rights and our treatment under the laws of Canada.
Hogben's article also draws an important distinction between "sharia," "Islamic," and "Muslim," and shows how the advocates of the tribunals exploit the terminology.
Sharia is an encompassing, value-laden term, and literally means the beaten path to the water, and metaphorically describes the way Muslims are to live. It is far more profound than mere jurisprudence, (fiqh) or Muslim law.

The term "Islamic" connotes the teachings of the faith, while "Muslim" relates to matters of the believers. Muslim family law is the human interpretation, over centuries, of Islamic guidance and is not divinely ordained, as some would have us believe.

The proponents of these tribunals are deliberately using the term Sharia, knowing that this will silence discussion and give them "Islamic" legitimacy in the eyes of some believers. They play into the fears of us, newer Canadians, arguing that we need identity markers to remain Muslim. They are belittling the rights provided under Canadian laws and presenting an idealized version of Muslim law.


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© May 30, 2004 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"