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Life under sharia, in Canada? Add to ...

Homa Arjomand knows what it's like to live under sharia law. In Iran, she endured it until 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, her husband and two small children (the youngest was barely one) escaped on a gruelling trip by horseback through the mountains. That was in 1989.

Today, she lives in a suburb northeast of Toronto. Her job is helping immigrant Muslim women in distress. And now she is battling the arrival of sharia law in

Canada.

"We must separate religion from the state," she says emotionally. "We're living in Canada. We want Canadian secular law."

Sharia law in Canada? Yes. The province of Ontario has authorized the use of sharia law in civil arbitrations, if both parties consent. The arbitrations will deal with such matters as property, marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. 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.

Ms. Arjomand's cellphone is constantly ringing -- with calls of support, or calls for help, or updates on various crises. A client of hers has just that day died of cancer, leaving behind a nine-year-old daughter. The husband was brutally abusive, and now the dead woman's family is terrified that he's going to take the daughter, who was born in Canada, and go back to Iran. Ms. Arjomand has been trying to get Children's Aid to intervene.

In the burgeoning Muslim communities around Toronto, it's customary to settle family disputes internally, by appealing to an imam or an older person in the family. "I have a client from Pakistan who works for a bank," Ms. Arjomand tells me. "She's educated. She used to give all her money to her husband. She had to beg him for money to buy a cup of coffee. Then she decided to keep $50 a month for herself, but he said no."

They took the matter to an uncle, who decreed that because the wife had not been obedient, her husband could stop sleeping with her. (This is a traditional penalty for disobedient wives.) He could also acquire a temporary wife to take care of his sexual needs, which he proceeded to do. Now the woman wants a separation. She's fighting for custody of the children, which, according to sharia, belong to the father.

The law permitting a sharia court was passed in 1991, when Ontario sought to streamline the overloaded court system (and save money) by diverting certain civil cases to arbitration, including arbitration conducted on religious principles. Jewish courts have operated in the province this way for many years. "People can agree to resolve disputes in any way acceptable," said Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ontario attorney-general. "If they decide to resolve disputes using principles of sharia and using an imam as an arbitrator, that is perfectly acceptable under the arbitration act."

Promoters of Islamic law in Canada have been working toward this goal for years. Last fall, they created the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice, which has already chosen arbitrators who have undergone training in sharia and Canadian civil law. The driving force behind the court is a lawyer and scholar named Syed Mumtaz Ali, who was quoted last week saying "to be a good Muslim," all Muslims must use these sharia courts.

Many Muslims, including many women, are enthusiastic about giving Islamic law an official place in Canada, and they emphatically deny that it will harm women's interests. On the contrary. They insist that under Islam, a woman's rights are protected. "We follow the Islamic law, secure with a perfect sense of equality between the sexes," wrote Khansa Muhaseen and Nabila Haque in a letter to the Toronto Star, where the sharia debate has been raging fiercely.

Opponents of the new tribunals argue that the government's imprimatur will give sharia law even greater legitimacy. Sharia law is based on the Koran, which, according to Muslim belief, provides the divine rules for behaviour. What is called sharia varies widely (in Nigeria, for example, it has been invoked to justify death by stoning). The one common denominator is that it is strongly patriarchal.

Alia Hogben is president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, a pro-faith group with members from every Muslim culture. But the council was never consulted about the new sharia courts, and it strongly opposes them.

"This is a very difficult position for us to be in because we are believing women," says Ms. Hogben. "But to apply Muslim family law in Canada is not appropriate." In Britain, she adds, the government has flatly rejected councils for sharia law.

Both Ms. Hogben and Ms. Arjomand -- the former an observant Muslim, the latter not -- are lobbying hard for Ontario to change the arbitration law.

(Ms. Arjomand has launched a petition, which you can find through a web search for "International Campaign Against Sharia Courts in Canada.")

When Ms. Hogben's family came to Canada 50 years ago, the Muslim population was tiny. In the 1970s, she and her husband started a tiny mosque in Toronto that they shared with Albanians and Bosnians. Today, Canada's Muslim population numbers more than 600,000, and many Muslims live in self-contained enclaves where there is little interaction with the outside world. Ms. Hogben welcomes the stronger sense of identity among Muslims now. But she warns that many of the new arrivals have brought with them a far more rigid version of Islam. "A lot of money is being poured into North America from very traditional groups from Saudi Arabia and Libya," she points out. These groups are not known for their tolerance of other versions of Islam, or for their progressive attitudes toward women.

Immigrant women are among the most vulnerable people in Canada. Many don't speak English, are poorly educated, and are isolated from the broader culture. They may live here for decades without learning the language, and stay utterly dependent on their families. They have no idea of their rights under Canadian law.

Both Ms. Hogben and Ms. Arjomand say that we are sacrificing these women on the altar of multiculturalism.

"This is an abuse of multiculturalism, says Ms. Hogben. "There is a lack of courage [on the part of governments] and also a fear of offending Muslim sensitivities."

"I chose to come to Canada because of multiculturalism," says Ms. Arjomand, who gave up a career in medical science to work with women who are victims of abuse. "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."

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