© 2005  Karen Selick
Oust Shari'a Law With Knowledge, Not Bans
An edited version of this article first appeared in the January, 2005 issue of Canadian Lawyer under the title "Taking on shari'a".
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Oust Shari’a with Knowledge, Not Bans

Everything I’ve ever read about Shari’a law makes me glad I was not born in a country where it prevails.  Although there are apparently many different versions and interpretations, Shari’a law at its worst prescribes punishments that most Canadians would consider cruel and draconian, for some relatively minor offences.  For instance, theft is punishable by the amputation of hands or feet.  Adultery is punishable in some instances by flogging, in others by being stoned to death.  Renouncing the Islamic faith—an offence that I surely would have committed had I been born into it—is also punishable by death. 

Women are treated particularly shabbily.  Daughters get only half the inheritance of sons.  A woman’s testimony in court is worth only half a man’s.  Husbands are authorized to beat disobedient wives—although only, apparently, as a last resort, after first admonishing them and secondly sending them to bed alone.*

Some Canadian Muslims seek to put a friendlier face on Shari’a law.  Ouahida Bendjedou, a Toronto law student writing in The Globe and Mail this summer, said, “As a Muslim woman, I believe sharia to be a fair and equitable code that treats women and men equally and reflects important values within Muslim life.” 

Well, Ms. Bendjedou, you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but if I ever need to refer a female client to a Toronto lawyer, you won’t top my list. 

This issue exploded into public view this past summer after Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty appointed former NDP attorney general Marian Boyd to review the impact of the 1991 Arbitration Act on vulnerable groups.  An organization called the International Campaign Against Shari’a Court in Canada had been lobbying to change the law so that Muslim women couldn’t be pressured into giving up their rights under Canadian law. 

Homa Arjomand, the campaign coordinator, has demanded variously that family law be removed from the ambit of the Arbitration Act, or that the Arbitration Act itself be repealed entirely.  While I am entirely sympathetic with Ms. Arjomand’s distaste for Shari’a law, I think her demands must be refused. 

The broadest demand—that the Arbitration Act be repealed—is the easiest to dismiss.  The Act governs commercial arbitration as well as matrimonial, and provides Ontarians with a less costly, more private, more expeditious alternative to the courts.  Repealing it for the sake of protecting Muslim women would be enormous overkill. 

The narrower demand—that family law be removed from the purview of the Act—is still overkill.  Why should the non-Muslim majority of Ontarians be deprived of the advantages of arbitration in matrimonial cases merely because some Muslim women may choose—albeit under duress—to submit to Shari’a law? 

It’s ironic, really, that those most opposed to the existence of Shari’a tribunals seem themselves to be caught up in a form of communal group-think, demanding that the rights of all be curtailed in order to protect a few. 

If they really want to help Muslim women, they should focus their efforts more closely on those who need the help.  Sometimes all it takes for a person to get the courage to break free of oppression is to know that it’s actually possible—that others like themselves have tried it and succeeded. 

Ms. Arjomand and her supporters could provide outreach services for Muslim women.  They could introduce them to others who have broken free of the stifling tradition of unquestioning obedience.  They could provide friendship and comfort if the women were threatened with ostracism by their own family and friends.  They could refer them to lawyers to learn what their options are and what their expectations would be under ordinary Ontario family law.  They could help ensure that any women who did choose to submit to arbitration by a Shari’a law arbitrator would be doing so in a condition of fully informed, voluntary consent. 

When all is said and done, individuals do have to make a choice to think for themselves and stand up for themselves.  Others can’t do it for them.  It’s a bit like the ancient Chinese proverb about helping those in poverty. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day;  teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.   

Even if Ontario banned Shari’a tribunals from existence (something it couldn’t do without running afoul of anti-discrimination laws, which is undoubtedly why Ms. Arjomand has been compelled to make her unnecessarily broad demands), that still wouldn’t be enough to ensure that all Moslem women in the province would be free of duress in their matrimonial settlements.  If they still feel intimidated by all those who surround them, if their own consciences still berate them due to the religious indoctrination they’ve endured since birth, they will still submit to unfavourable settlements. 

They have to be shown instead that there is another way for women to think and act.  They have to be given the philosophical and emotional tools that will allow them to adopt a Canadian way of life.  The best thing anyone can do for them is to set an example of how to stand up to a bully without becoming one yourself. 


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 * verse 34 of Surah an-Nisa of the Quran


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February 20,, 2005