Ontario must say 'no' to Islamic law

In January last year, the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council incurred the wrath of Iraqi women by ordering that Islamic law, or sharia, replace the civil code that had governed family and divorce law since the 1950s. Women from Iraq's different religious sects denounced the decision in street protests and conferences that eventually led to sharia being listed as just one of several sources of legislation in Iraq's temporary constitution.

It is that image of Iraqi women braving the streets of occupied Baghdad to protest sharia that makes it impossible to understand what former Ontario Attorney General Marion Boyd was thinking when she recommended Jan. 17 that the province allow sharia tribunals to settle family disputes for Muslims. Her report examining the issue was commissioned by current Attorney General Michael Bryant, as Ontario considers whether to let Islamic law be used in private arbitration of civil and family-law disputes when all parties agree to it.

As a Muslim woman who is familiar with the many ways sharia is abused and used against women in my own country, Egypt, and in several other Muslim countries I have reported from, I urge Mr. Bryant and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to reject Ms. Boyd's recommendations.

Many Canadian Muslims agree. The Canadian Council for Muslim Women has called Boyd's recommendations naive. A coordinator of the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada has warned that these tribunals will compel women to stay in abusive relationships. Tarek Fatah, a founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, denounced the former attorney general's report as "multiculturalism run amok."

Boyd's recommendations seem to be aimed at compensating Muslims for the ugly Islamophobia that has surfaced in North America in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But women must not pay the price for liberal guilt.

According to most interpretations of sharia, women are not treated equally to men. For example, a woman inherits half of what a male relative does. Even more problematic, there is no consensus on sharia, which is derived from the Koran and the life and sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

So whose interpretation of sharia would Ontario Muslims follow? And who would have the authority to decide?

Would it be the Canadian Council of Muslim Theologians, for example, which in answer to a question on their website about women drivers, said, "To the extent of necessity, it is permissible for a woman to drive ... driving will not be permissible for leisure and going around unnecessarily."

Remember - this is in Canada, not Saudi Arabia.

No wonder Mr. Fatah termed Boyd's recommendation "the racism of lower expectations where under the garb of diversity, Muslims are being encouraged to ghettoize and withdraw from the mainstream."

Sharia tribunals would be set up under the Arbitration Act of 1991, which Boyd helped devise. The act allows people to forgo Canada's public court system by using private arbitration to settle civil and family-law disputes. Jews and Catholics have used the Arbitration Act for some time, but this in itself is problematic because it leads to an effectual privatization of the judicial system and strengthens the role of clergy in minority communities.

But what is wrong with Canadian civil law that religious Canadians must look elsewhere? And why is the Canadian court system shirking its responsibility to its citizens?

On the books, such religious courts are predicated on mutual consent of the parties and the condition that their outcomes respect Canadian law and human rights codes. That is easier said than done and Boyd knows it: She has said the arbitration she recommends for Muslims is "very much a case of buyer beware."

With sharia tribunals in place in Ontario, it isn't difficult to imagine the pressure that would be exerted on Muslim women to choose them over civil courts. Syed Mumtaz Ali of the Islamic Institute for Civil Justice, who has promoted the idea of such tribunals for years, has already denounced Muslim opponents of sharia as not "real Muslims."

There are reports that some Muslims groups in British Columbia are awaiting the green light in Ontario before they lobby their province for sharia tribunals.

Ontario must say "no" to sharia.

Mona Eltahawy, a board member of the Progressive Muslim Union of North America, is a New York-based columnist for Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based pan-Arab daily.

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