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Different Laws for Different People?

June 27, 2008
N. Lukanovich

Last week I wrote about a conversation I'd had with a friend, in l991, concerning women's rights in Iran. In that same year, Ontario passed an arbitration law to allow Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and Ismaili Muslims to make judgments in civil cases, and these judgments in family and business disputes would be legally binding.

This arbitration law was no doubt perceived as a money saver for Ontario, equal rights for women be damned. The media paid no attention and the general public was blissfully ignorant until 2004 when the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice applied to include Sharia. I don't know if the media smelled the potential outrage, or the outrage woke up the media, but suddenly the Arbitration Act of l991 became the centre of controversy.

I was so stunned, amazed, and frankly incensed that Ontario had passed a law to permit any religious groups to pass binding decisions in family law, that the issue of including another religion was secondary. The idea that any religious laws should be binding in our nation is loathsome and contrary to any notion of equality.

Feminists were opposed to the law, but the most vigorous protests came from other Muslim groups, and the group that spearheaded the movement against the inclusion of Sharia law was The Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada, founded by Homa Arjomand, a refugee from Iran.

According to this courageous woman, the use of Sharia law in Canada was one of her worst nightmares come true. The group asserted that Sharia treats women as inferiors to men, even in its mildest forms, and provides them with fewer rights in divorce, property, and custody of children.

But what I found most disturbing throughout this controversy, were the editorials and articles published in mainstream papers that promoted the inclusion of Sharia law. Journalists of the left wing variety didn't blink an eye about religious courts of any kind, and deemed anyone opposing them to be xenophobic and racist.

This viewpoint ignores the possibility that some of us believe that all women should have the same rights, no matter what their culture, religion, or race. The Muslim Canadian Congress, another Muslim group vehemently opposed to the inclusion of Sharia, felt that the act allowing binding faith-based arbitration was exclusionary and would only serve to ghettoize Muslim women.

In a formal submission to Marion Boyd (charged with reviewing the inclusion of Sharia law) they stated: "In our respectful view, any public official body or institution that does not squarely and openly address the racism of these provisions and measures, is complicit in them." This point was further clarified: "Any 'arbitration' system ought to be neutral and equally apply to any and all citizens regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. To have a system built on the exact opposite is to defile our Constitutional framework."

Marion Boyd, in her lack of wisdom, concluded that the inclusion of Sharia law would promote inclusion of a minority and supported the appeal. But in the face of the opposition from Muslim women (and his electorate, no doubt), the premier Dalton McGuinty decided to rid the province of the Arbitration Act of 1991 altogether.

The reaction from members of the media who supported religious arbitration was predictable. Peter McKnight, of the Vancouver Sun, is a case in point; he wrote: "Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's decision to ban faith-based arbitration isn't just a blow to multiculturalism, freedom of religion and freedom of contract; it is, rather, a blow to the rights and interests of Muslim women, the very people his decision was meant to protect."

It's a pity that he didn't take a moment to listen to the views of the Muslim women who were speaking out and speaking loud, but I suppose their opinion was secondary to his ideological agenda vis a vis multiculturalism and his utter lack of concern vis a vis women's equality in the face of any religious laws.

To witness so many leftists abandon women's rights for the sake of cultural and religious 'rights', is like being dropped into some terrible twilight zone where the left is doing the work of right-wing conservatives who want to keep women by the stove.

As a Canadian woman who is mortified by the notion of non-secular laws in a supposedly secular nation, I would like to thank the Muslim women, mostly Iranian, who by their vigorous protest, effectively did away with faith based arbitration of any religion, and in doing so, did all Canadian women a great service.

It is no surprise, however, since Iranian women are apparently tough as nails and will protest for equal rights even with the threat of imprisonment. Click on this link to find out more about what's going on in Iran right now: http://womennewsnetwork.net/ This site delivers new about women all over the world and their struggle for justice and equality.

With all this talk of Iranian women, I'm reminded of an absolutely beautiful memoir entitled "Reading Lolita in Tehran", by Azar Nafisi, a professor of literature who held clandestine classes at her home with former students after losing resigining her last academic position in the University in Tehran.

They studied the classics that were banished from the universities. It's poetic and informative at the same time, and highly recommended for anyone who wants more insight into the revolution and the impact on women's lives.

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Text and Images: Property of Natasha J. Lukanovich or contributors - Writers and Artists as Named