Ontario wrestles with regulation
For months, a Muslim woman living in Toronto tried to wring a divorce out of her local imam.
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The imam told her that her spouse wanted $100,000 and all her gold jewellery, she said, asking that her identity not be disclosed because she fears retribution from her ex-husband, the imam and her community.
She managed to bargain him down to $5,000, money she had to borrow. She also agreed to give up all child-support payments and alimony, and not to take legal action against him in the future.
Without his consent, she could not remarry within her religion.
“The imam told me, ‘there are some sharia conditions you must follow, we must come to a settlement within sharia.’ I agreed because I was desperate,” said the woman, 29, who uses the pseudonym Shinaz.
“If the mullah, our religious leader, didn’t grant the divorce, then under sharia I would have lost custody of my son when he turned eight. Also, I could not remarry.”
The issue of faith-based arbitration and whether to formally regulate sharia religious arbitration in Ontario has sparked an international debate.
The province’s 1991 Arbitration Act provides for voluntary faith-based arbitration to resolve civil and family-law disputes.
The Ontario government is currently considering whether to accept the recommendations of a recent report that found that the existing system does not discriminate against women.
Critics say otherwise, and today, demonstrations against the act are planned in 12 cities in Canada and Europe including Amsterdam, London, Paris and Dusseldorf, in what activists say is part of a global battle between secular societies and “political Islam.”
Shinaz is an observant Muslim, but she also describes herself as a modern woman who chooses not to wear hijab, works in the service sector and had the courage at least to try fighting for her rights — even as she saw her family ostracized and shunned by her community.
She believes that her experience with faith-based arbitration reveals the difficulty many Muslim women face: Culturally and legally, under most interpretations of sharia, men have far more rights than women when it comes to inheritance, divorce, child-support payments and child-custody issues.
Canadian legal safeguards and training for imams cannot change this, she says, pointing out that her imam doesn’t speak fluent English and has little knowledge of Canadian Charter rights.
“Women in Ontario should definitely not have to rely on sharia and mullahs and imams to resolve family disputes. People have to know what is going on,” she said.
When the imam finally signed the talaq, divorce, in their community mosque, she felt nothing but anger and betrayal.
“I was so angry at the way I was treated, that this happens in a country like Canada. We come here to get better treatment,” she said.
“A lot of women in the community are in my situation. My friend agreed to give up her boy to her ex-husband when he turns eight just so she could get a religious divorce.”
At stake is the right for women to be treated justly and equitably, says Homa Arjomand, an Iranian immigrant who is co-ordinating the International Campaign against Sharia Court in Ontario.
Ms. Arjomand works as a counsellor for a Toronto agency and says more than 120 Muslim women have come to her so far this year, many of whom are fleeing abusive marriages and physical assault.
“Canadians think, this is your culture, you deal with it. But it is the government’s duty to protect the vulnerable, including women and children,” she said.
Many of the women who seek Ms. Arjomand’s help are immigrants with little education or ability to navigate Canada’s legal system. This was not the case with Shinaz.
Born overseas in a Muslim country, Shinaz immigrated with her family to Canada and studied in a community college in Toronto. At 22, she agreed to an arranged marriage, the norm in her culture.
She flew from Toronto to the man’s homeland in South Asia, hoping that the match would work: They were the same age, with similar backgrounds and levels of education.
“I did notice in his country that women were treated as second-class citizens. He went out a lot but didn’t say where he was going. But I thought, when we get to Canada, he will change,” she says. “This was the first man I had ever been with.”
She flew back to Canada after the ceremony, and began the process of sponsoring her husband to come here. When he arrived two years later, she had already given birth to their first and only child. From the beginning, they argued over everything, from whether to buy a house or rent, to when to start potty-training their son.
“He tried to isolate me from my own family who all live here. We argued,” she said. One day they had a physical altercation that resulted in the police coming. No charges were laid, but police gave her ex-husband a warning after Shinaz said he tried to strangle her.
In 2001, less than a year after arriving in Toronto, he left the family. Shinaz went to a Canadian lawyer to work out a separation agreement. According to the agreement, Shinaz got the condo they had bought together and her ex-husband all the assets he had brought to the marriage, including his overseas business.
He agreed to pay her a few hundred dollars a month in child support. She had custody of their son, while he had the right to see him every other weekend.
After a year of separation, Shinaz hired a lawyer and for $800, obtained a no-fault divorce.
However, she still needed a religious divorce in order to be free to remarry within Islam. She also worried that without a religious divorce, her husband could end up taking the child out of Canada and end up with automatic custody of their son.
Under sharia law, when a couple divorces, a father automatically gets custody of sons when they turn eight, and daughters at the age of 13, or when they first menstruate.
“I was so worried he would take our son out of Canada to an Islamic country where he would have custody and I would never see him again,” Shinaz said.
She contacted her local imam, expecting he would agree to issue a divorce –especially as her husband had travelled overseas and remarried.
“But the imam refused to issue a divorce until my husband would consent,” Shinaz said.
It bothered her that she did not speak directly with the imam, but had to negotiate through her male relatives, another paternalistic aspect of faith-based arbitration, she complained.
She realized that her husband wanted to bribe her. “So I said, ‘I won’t give you access to our son until you give me a religious divorce,” she said. “The imam said, ‘you must give a little to get something.’ “
In the end, her ex agreed to give up custody rights, and she will no longer receive spousal payment. A loss for them both — but she says she is relieved to have him out of her life at last.