Homa Arjomand

October 28, 2004

 Speech at METRAC (Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence against Women and Children) on “Emerging Issues in Women’s Equality –A look at Sharia Law”

 I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be among you today.  Gatherings like this provide an opportunity to discuss the obstacles women face in order to achieve equality. I’d like to present a true picture of the situation that women and children face in the so called Muslim communities. I will then highlight the need for the total separation of religion from the State as a precondition of women’s liberation in these communities.

 The first victims of religion influenced culture, particularly of Sharia, are women and children. Sharia has deprived many women and girls of their basic rights in Canada . The numbers of girls who have been mutilated is high. Forced and arranged marriages are common. Very young girls are forced to wear the veil. They are segregated from boys at a very young age. Girls are prohibited from participating in swimming, dancing and other sports at schools. Parents are given the right to deprive their daughters of education and to isolate them from mainstream society. Death is the penalty for girls who are found to be lesbian or who get pregnant before marriage.

 Unfortunately, the government of Ontario , through its silence and its bent for cultural relativism, is constructing a huge barrier for the growing number of young girls and women who no longer wish to tolerate the cultural and religious oppression within their families, but prefer to take refuge in women’s shelters. 

 The Arbitration Act 1991 has already paved the way for a new parallel court systems in Ontario . The initiators of Sharia court in Canada used this path to re-enforce cultural interference in the lives of women. As result the justice system is becoming chaotic.  Every religion is being given the right to become an integral part of the Canadian Justice system. No one from government is taking the responsibility for the result of family disputes settled by arbitrators. No section of government is responsible for the well being of battered immigrant women and their children in those communities.

 While, technically, all Muslim women have access to Canadian laws and courts, and while the Canadian legal system would reject the oppressive decisions made under Shari'a as being contrary to Canadian Law, the reality is that most women would be coerced (socially, economically and psychologically) into participating in the Shari'a tribunal.  Women would be told that the Shari'a Tribunal is a legal tribunal under the Arbitration Act. Even women who know that Canadian law would not uphold the decisions, would not challenge the decisions for fear of physical, emotional, economic and social consequences.

 Allowing religious interference in the justice system endangers the life and safety of  battered immigrant women  who are at the merci of  male-chauvinist cultures.

 One of the main arguments put forward by the Initiators of Sharia court is that the Canadian government should not be allowed to interfere in the way that people choose to practice their religion or to bring up their children.

 We support state intervention to protect children by use of a child protection law. Some will express concern that freedom of religion will be restricted. Our response is that being born into a family of a specific culture with certain beliefs should not mean that a child is to be left, unrestricted, to the mercy of her/his parents.

 Anyone can have any beliefs, express them, publicize them and organize around them. The question is : What are the regulations that society puts in place to protect itself?

Police, counselors, Assistant Crown Attorneys, teachers and nurses are trained to be very sensitive towards others culture and religions. As it is stated very clearly in  the “principles of Intervention for CAS (Children Aid Society) and VAW (Violence Against Women Collaborative Work),  “all intervention should be culturally informed and based on cultural sensitive practices. Culture includes country of Origin, sexual orientation, ability and economic status.” 

My question is how much can a CAS worker, a VAW and a police officer bend for cultural relativism? The reality is that they have paid huge amounts of respect to the violations of women’s and children’s rights, instead of paying attention to the needs of women, youth and children. especially in the so called Islamic communities. The government added some amount of dollars to train its legal staff, funded some TV programs, provided facilities and financial support to the provokers of multiculturalism. The outcome is the obvious justification of two sets of values, of rights and of privileges for the residents of Canada  , leaving many young women and girls without any protection. I have no doubt that the creation of small minorities or ghettoisation was the outcome of such policy.   

 Because of this sensitivity towards other culture and cultural relativism, Canadian laws and regulations are applied differently when it comes to immigrant women and children. In fact, depending on their culture, religion, nationality and gender, these laws are practiced differently within each community or, quite often, totally ignored.  No wonder even when police are called to get involved with domestic violence, shamelessly the culture and religion of abuser becomes more important than the safety of the women and children in that house. Battered women who have ended up requiring hospital care have reported that the police twice had been to the household in response to calls for help, but did nothing other that advising the husband to behave.

  Once more I’d like to emphasis that, our society must accept one set of progressive laws and regulations for all, irrespective of sex, race,ethnicity. It is the government’s duty to protect the individual and the civil rights and liberties of all citizens living in Canada . There must be no state within a state. Only a secular state and a secular society that respects human rights can ensure women’s liberation.