Activists Savor Anti-Sharia Victory in Ontario

Run Date: 10/11/05

By Ann Pappert
WeNews correspondent

When Ontario's premier turned down Sharia law last month, he left a melange of activists--campaign leader Homa Arjomand, writer Margaret Atwood, parliamentarians and the Toronto YWCA--savoring a victory fought on many fronts.

Homa Arjomand (WOMENSENEWS)--At first Homa Arjomand thought that the telephone call that interrupted her Sunday dinner in mid September was just a prank.

"I thought the caller was joking, but it was true," she said. "No faith-based arbitration. I was so happy."

For more than seven months Arjomand, coordinator of the International Campaign Against Shari'a Court in Canada, had led the fight against a proposal for the Ontario government to establish a network of Islamic Sharia family law tribunals to arbitrate domestic matters such as divorce, custody and support payments.

Arjomand, who came to Canada in 1990 after fleeing Iran, had been an activist for women's rights since 1970, both in her native Iran and in Canada.

Now she is in the middle of a victory lap; celebrating the success of her campaign with a series of lectures this month on the globalization of political Islam that kicks off in London on Oct. 19 and ends in Stockholm on Oct. 29.

Under some interpretations of Sharia law--based on four canonical books written in the 10th and 11th centuries and based on oral laws from even earlier--a woman's worth is half that of a man. Women are considered to be under the supervision of men, whether they are husbands or fathers. In a property dispute women can receive only half of what a man receives. Often, men are more likely to get custody of children, particularly boys, in a divorce.

Sharia-based arbitration courts were initially proposed in 2002 by Mumtaz Ali, a retired lawyer and head of the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice in Ontario, a private arbitration organization. Ontario is home to more than a third of Canada's 600,000 Muslims.

Ali called for extending to Muslims existing provincial legislation that allowed religious groups to use religious courts to arbitrate family disputes: divorce, custody and support payments and bypass the civil court system. Orthodox Jews, for example, used the system to obtain a "get," the term for a divorce granted under Orthodox laws. Only a Jewish court can issue a get.

Boyd Asked for Advice

The provincial government responded to Ali's proposal by asking Marion Boyd, a former provincial justice minister and women's rights activist, to examine the proposal. Her December 2004 report recommended allowing Sharia arbitration because the province could not permit some types of religious-based arbitration while excluding others.

The report opened Canada up to the possibility of becoming the first Western country to incorporate Sharia-based tribunals into their legal system.

The ultimate decision to accept Boyd's recommendation belonged to the leader of the province, Premiere Dalton McGuinty, who held his silence after Boyd made her recommendation and gave no hints of how he was leaning.

While the government held mum, Boyd's report touched off an immediate outcry from women's organizations, civil libertarians and human rights groups.

Arjomand, who fled Iran in 1989, saw the proposal as a threat to women.

"Millions of women are suffering and being oppressed under Sharia law in many different parts of the world," she wrote in a letter to Boyd. "Even the mere suggestion of Sharia tribunals (in Ontario) causes an atmosphere of fear among women who come from 'Islamic' countries. If this gains . . . validity it will increase intimidation and threats against innumerable women and it will open the way for future suppression."

Internet Petition Launched

Arjomand's organization launched an Internet petition opposing Sharia tribunals and within a couple of months it had collected over 10,000 signatures. Every six months, Arjomand sent the petition and a list of signatories to every member of the federal and provincial parliaments, as well as lawmakers in such countries as Germany and Sweden, where Sharia law was an issue.

Close to 90 organizations from 14 countries joined Arjomand's protest and many echoed her concern that Ontario would set a precedent for other Western countries to follow.

"For all Europeans, women particularly, we think of Canada as a country where women's rights are very strong," Michele Viannes, president of the Paris-based group Regard de Femmes, one of the organizations that joined the with Arjomand's group to protest the proposal, was quoted by European media. "For us it is unbelievable that Sharia institutes are possible in Canada."

Toronto YMCA an Important Ally

The Toronto YWCA, the city's largest and only women's multi-service organization, became an influential opponent of the Sharia tribunals. Prompted by a plea from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women to get involved, the YWCA took a strong public stand against all government sanctioned religious arbitration. It devoted a big section of its Web site to the issue and issued a report last December about the negative effects on women of religious arbitration.

"We feel strongly that it is not only Islamic or Muslim family law that presents this threat," YWCA of Toronto Executive Director Heather McGregor wrote to one newspaper. She noted that the rise in fundamentalist interpretation of most major religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, expressly erodes the rights of women, and that religious law should not be part of the laws of any secular country.

YWCA of Toronto supporters included the Ottawa-based Canadian Labour Congress; the YWCA Canada, headquartered in Toronto and the Ottawa-based National Council of Women of Canada, the country's oldest women's organization.

Talking About Death Threats

At an Aug. 13 Toronto meeting organized by the International Campaign Against Shari'a Court in Canada, three women facing death threats for their outspoken opposition to Islamic fundamentalists talked about their experiences.

One was Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who appeared under a heavy security presence. Hirsi Ali wrote the script for "Submission," a controversial film about Islam and women. The director of that film, Theo Van Gogh, was killed last November and his killer pinned a note to Van Gogh's body with a knife threatening Hirsi Ali's life.

"Why, if you have equal rights in Canada, would you take them away from Muslim women?" Hirsi Ali asked the meeting.

Anticipating a decision from the premier, protests heated up in early September, when organizers staged demonstrations in cities across Canada and Europe, including Paris, Amsterdam and Rome.

The premier also came under pressure from his own caucus, including 17 female members who reportedly pointed out that women's rights could not be protected from Sharia provisions and urged all religious-based arbitration be dropped. "We were a loud voice in the final decision," one caucus member told a Toronto newspaper.

On Sept. 10, a group of 10 prominent Canadian women, including writer Margaret Atwood and Flora MacDonald, a former member of Parliament, issued an open letter to McGuinty. They predicted that religious arbitration would lead to human-rights abuses, particularly for women and children, and undermine the separation of religion from the state.

The next day McGuinty announced there would be no Sharia law in Ontario. Not only that, there would no longer be any religious arbitration of any kind. "There will be one law for all Ontarians," he said.

On Sept. 11, the day McGuinty announced his decision, Arjomand sent out 28,000 e-mails to supporters and legislators around the globe to tell them about the victory.

She didn't realize just how many e-mails went out that day until her e-mail provider notified her and added fees because she had exceeded the allowable use on her account.

Ann Pappert is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered women's issues for many years. Her pieces have appeared in newspapers and magazines in the U.S. and Canada as well as NBC and ABC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.