Skip to main content

The Globe's monthly panel convenes to discuss religion, abuse and the polygamy rulingThe Globe and Mail

"I have concluded that this case is essentially about harm; more specifically, Parliament's reasoned apprehension of harm arising out of the practice of polygamy."

So wrote Chief Justice Robert Bauman of the B.C. Supreme Court in last week's ruling on the constitutionality of Canadian polygamy laws. The central plank of this ruling was harm, particularly harm to the women involved in the practice.

Chief Justice Bauman isn't the first or last to invoke the safeguarding of women while speaking against religious teaching. Nearly every faith has struggled with this issue, a situation our Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss.

Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and host of the TV program Context with Lorna Dueck , seen Sundays on Global TV at 9:30 a.m. ET and Vision TV at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam is an associate professor of economics at Mount Royal University. He is Hindu, originally from Sri Lanka, and has been in Canada since 1984. He has served as president of the Calgary Multicultural Centre and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary, and has arranged multifaith panels to talk about religion to students in the residences at Mount Royal.

Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master's degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.

Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to secure the participation of a Mormon panelist for this discussion. A number of people we approached referred us to their U.S.-based church, which would only state that "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no affiliation with any group or organization that practises polygamy. Church doctrine rejecting plural marriage has been in effect since 1890. You can be sure that anyone practising polygamy is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Nevertheless, "religious teachings and harm to women" is a sprawling, complicated topic. I'm interested to see where this goes.

Let's start at the macro level. What are the issues in your faith? How have its teachings (or interpretations of those teachings) done harm to women? And how have they saved women from harm?

Howard Voss-Altman: Let's begin with the foundations: the narrative of the creation. On the sixth day, when God creates human beings, God makes them "male and female." God creates them together, as equals, just as the other animals were created male and female (for obvious reproductive purposes). Sadly, even though men and women are equal in the first biblical account, Western religions tend to emphasize the second creation narrative, where Adam is first, and then Eve is created as Adam's "helpmate." Accordingly, the position of women in society has been one of subordination, instead of equality. Reform Judaism has tried to change this reality – with some success – but we still have a long way to go. It is up to our clergy and teachers to emphasize the first narrative, God's first creation story.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: Hinduism accords equal status for men and women. This is the basis for the worship of Shiva (male) and Shakthi (female) and their presence in temples. Hence, there is no religious basis for mistreatment of or violence against women. What harm takes place, such as bride burning or giving women lower status in society, arises from cultural practices, which are confined to a few.

Sheema Khan: I think we should make clear at the outset that religious teachings, in of themselves, should not be the source of blame. Rather, let's place the responsibility for an individual's choices squarely on the individual. Too often, those who commit wrong will blame something or someone else, rather than take responsibility for their own deeds. That is also enshrined in the Koran – namely, one must take responsibility for one's actions.

Furthermore, the Koran is literally an open book, in that no two people will come away with an identical experience, simply due to the individuality of each person. If someone has a demeaning view of women, and chooses to maintain that view, then when he reads the Koran, he will interpret verses to conform to his view. On the other hand, if someone approaches the teachings with humility, he will be open to re-evaluating such views.

Lorna Dueck: Macro level on this is that, over centuries, God has been reduced to a gender identity. When Jesus began his human life, it was as a son, with God as father. An understandable approach for all of us, but only one dimension of what the Eternal Divine God is. If you limit your understanding of God to that one gender, it gives excuse to minimize the feminine, and I think that has been used to do harm to women.

This despite the fact the Bible teaches that man and woman are created equal, in the image of God, and one gender does not represent God more than the other. Saving women (and all humanity) from harm is fundamental in the biblical teachings – any inequality was to be made obsolete once the gift of Christ was given to the world. There are victories and losses all over the interpretation of this issue … we'll get into them.

Howard Voss-Altman: Lorna, while the conception of God as father and Jesus as son may be an "understandable approach" for Christians, it is hardly the approach for "all of us." Indeed, Judaism's conception of God is one, indivisible, and transcends gender entirely. The "image of God" language, for Jews, means that we are co-creators with God, not that we bear any resemblance, physical or otherwise.

Sheema Khan: With regards to Islam, the two foundational sources (the Koran and the authentic traditions of the Prophet Mohammed) make it clear that:

  • Eve is not the source of original sin. In fact, there is no such concept as original sin;
  • Men and women are complimentary, and encouraged to co-operate and work together;
  • The noblest in the sight of God is the one who is most God-conscious – a trait only known to God – and this is open to men and women;
  • Women have every right to own property, to an education, to participate in decision-making, to vote;
  • Mothers are to be honoured above fathers;
  • There is no inherent superiority of a male over a female, and vice versa;
  • A woman has every right to choose whom she marries – she cannot have the choice imposed on her by her parents.

There is more. But even with the above, harm is done to women in some Muslim cultures. Some advocate against female education, female decision-making, female participation in the work force and so on. Polygamy is allowed, with very severe restrictions: One cannot marry more than one woman if the law of the land forbids it; where a man takes more than one wife, he must treat each of them equally; and a man must financially support his wives and all offspring.

The Koran states that it is very difficult to be just in this situation, and discourages it. Unfortunately, we have cases here in Canada where imams knowingly perform polygamous marriages. They should be prosecuted under the full extent of the law. The second wife who enters into such a relationship has no marital rights within Canadian law, nor do her children. They are left at the mercy of the husband/father, and the Muslim community is in no position to enforce the rights of the wife and children. There is much harm in these polygamous arrangements – just look at France. There is the example of Mohammad Shafia, who is on trial in Kingston, accused, with his son and second wife, of killing his first wife and three daughters.

Then there is wife abuse – due to Chapter 4, Verse 34 of the Koran, which provides guidelines to a husband on how to deal with a recalcitrant wife: Talk to her, then sleep apart, then the third step. Most traditional commentary says he is allowed to strike her – albeit symbolically. The Prophet Mohammed never struck any of his wives, and admonished his followers: The best of you is the one who is the best to his family. On many occasions, he counselled followers to treat their wives with kindness and compassion. Unfortunately, we have wife-beaters today who say Islam sanctions their actions. There is also a movement under way to interpret this verse in another way, in which the last step guideline means "to leave your wife." Either way, domestic abuse is but a symptom of a wider issue: namely that women are somehow lesser than men.

Guy Nicholson: Are religious leaders responsible for teaching against family violence?

Sheema Khan: Great question. Yes, they are, and yes, they have. Prior to the trial, Muslim activists and religious leaders brainstormed and crafted a national call to action against domestic violence, in which mosques pledge to give a sermon this Friday (in commemoration of Dec. 6, the national day of remembrance and action on violence against women), in which the imams make it clear there is no room for beating or striking one's wife and children. About 60 mosques have signed on so far, and more are signing on each day.

One of these calls to action emphasize that there is no honour in killing a family member. In addition, the imam of the Kingston mosque, Sikander Hashmi, gave a powerful sermon on the first Friday of the Shafia trial, in which he made it unequivocal: Family conflict needs to be resolved peacefully, with mediation, and that there is absolutely no justification anywhere in the teachings of Islam that justifies honour killing.

Mohammad Shafia has said that his daughters betrayed Islam and humankind. Others allege it was he who did the betraying. Of course, there is no verdict yet and the defendants have pleaded not guilty. But the trial has shown a dysfunctional family where the men ruled with impunity.

Our imams carry a lot of moral authority, and they can use the mimbar (pulpit) to spread a moral message that brings civility to family life, and provides no cover whatsoever for violence. The national statement is a very good start, and the hope is that, once the media attention subsides, there will be regular Friday sermons on this issue, along with workshops and seminars to help vulnerable families deal with problems without resorting to violence.

Howard Voss-Altman: We have an incredible responsibility – one that has been largely ignored by too many clergy. Here in Calgary, we have a group called Faithlink, which has brought clergy of all faiths together to increase our awareness of family violence, and to provide assistance in counselling victims of family violence. Too often, in the name of shalom bayit (Hebrew for "peace in the home"), rabbis have counselled women to stay in abusive marriages. We can only hope that such days are long past.

Lorna Dueck: I think the bulk of topics in clergy's inboxes are issues of family-related needs. The church has a unique challenge and ability to speak about family violence because the New Testament is so clear about relationships being undertaken in respect, kindness, mutual submission and in an attitude of servant-hood. Abuse does happen in Christian families, but it is not permissible according to any teachings in Scripture. Passages such as Ephesians 5:21-33 on how marriage is supposed to work, in roles of serving each other, bringing out the best, loving and laying down your life for each other like Christ did, get misinterpreted as power control – it's a stumbling that religious leaders try to speak into.

Vettivelu Nallainayagam: I do not think this trial has anything to do with religious justification. No religion will condone the murder of women; what we see here is the misguided notion of honour and respect in society, which are cultural issues and not religious issues.

I think we should not associate violence against women with any religion, and hence not look only to clergy to deal with this issue. It is a social issue, and hence must be dealt with though education, providing counselling to men and women by qualified people.

Guy Nicholson: I'm curious about secular institutions, such as politicians and courts, which have in recent years found themselves in the middle of many divisive issues where Canadian women's well-being has been seen to be at odds with at least some religious teaching: sharia law, birth control, abortion, the list goes on. Do you think these institutions have done a good job of safeguarding women? Have they been too intrusive? Not intrusive enough?

Sheema Khan: I think that, overall, our institutions have found the right balance.

Howard Voss-Altman: I think our political and judicial institutions recognize that the Canadian Constitution and the Charter of Rights demand that equality, fairness and the absence of discrimination are hallmark values of our nation. When religious values conflict with our national values (as expressed in those documents), our national values must be paramount. For example, the Orthodox laws of divorce, which often place women in an untenable position, have had to be altered to conform to rights protected under the Charter. This is precisely what our courts and our legislators ought to be doing.

Lorna Dueck: Generally, I think we're balancing this well in Canada. Faith views on issues like abortion should not be forced, but be compelling to people out of a logic of love and well-being. When that fails to be evident in a faith view, we need the civic mind to interfere – as was the case in the recent polygamy ruling. I am so glad the B.C. Supreme Court ruled to clarify that the Criminal Code on polygamy is valid, even though, in doing so, the ruling limits religious freedom. If religion is harming people, then we need the intrusion of protective law on it. The polygamy challenge will continue at the Supreme Court, and we will have religious sects wanting religious freedom to practise polygamy, so it's a great question – how do we interact religiously when the laws of the land have different boundaries than our faith does? I wish we didn't need courts to keep religion in check, but, as we have seen in the tragedy with the clergy sex-abuse scandals or residential schools, the human propensity to sin means we will need safeguarding beyond our own religious orders.

Guy Nicholson: Interesting, Lorna. The ruling against polygamy "offends the freedom of religion of identifiable groups," Chief Justice Robert Bauman acknowledged. But if polygamous sects feel they can handle their freedom without inflicting harm, should they be able to define their own limits?

Lorna Dueck: Nineteen wives of one man in Bountiful – religion cannot define its own limits. It's a flawed institution.

Howard Voss-Altman: Sadly, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints cannot be trusted to determine the nature of "harm." In this sect [not to be confused with the mainstream LDS church] there are consent issues, child-welfare issues and issues of public health that require government intervention. Religious groups that come into conflict with health and welfare laws simply cannot opt out on religious grounds.

Sheema Khan: I think those who advocate polygamy should demonstrate how they will safeguard the rights of women and children. Statements that the community "feels" like it can handle it are empty. During the sharia arbitration debate, the group that advocated Islamic family law put out feel-good statements such as "The rulings will comply with the Charter." But when I asked advocates how they would handle specific issues such as inheritance (where a male gets twice as much as a female since he has traditionally been responsible for financial maintenance of the family), domestic violence, pronouncement of divorce (traditionally, a man can invoke divorce by three pronouncements, whereas a woman must petition a judge), issues of witnessing and so on, they had no specific explanations. There are traditional sharia rulings that are completely contrary to the Charter, and yet the advocates had not given serious thought as to how to actually handle the contradictions.

So, communities that want to advocate polygamy must demonstrate exactly how they will minimize the harm.

Guy Nicholson: That's all the time we have today. Thanks for your thoughts, panelists.