Monday, May 24, 2004

The Feminism of Fools, Cont'd

The province of Ontario approved the use of sharia in Ontario's Muslim community, allowing the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice to claim "the right to hold tribunals, darul qada, in which marriage, family and business disputes can be settled according to sharia" (Lynda Hurst, "Ontario Sharia Tribunals Assailed," Toronto Star, May 22, 2004). Predictably, right-wing blogs and publications such as Jihad Watch and FrontPage are having a field day, railing against Islam, tolerance, and multiculturalism, but Alia Hogben, president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, scoffs at men of the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice and their right-wing critics, both of whom opportunistically invoke multiculturalism to exploit it or revile it for their respective chauvinist purposes: "It's a false argument. . . Multiculturalism was never meant to take away the equality rights of a group, in this case Muslim women" (Hurst, May 22, 2004).

Multiculturalism is not without its own problems, but ranters on the right, as usual, miss the mark even when they happen to aim in the right direction:
While right-wing critics of "multiculturalism" vent their anger against imagined enemies for stealing "their" society and certain privileged white male leftists in the academy attack anti-racist feminists for allegedly derailing the class project, liberal-minded Canadians, including politicians, ethnic elites, and social scientists, proudly proclaim Canada as a "nation of immigrants" that offers hardworking newcomers an opportunity to improve themselves, contribute to Canada's rich cultural "mosaic," and eventually join the Canadian "family." None of these viewpoints capture the truly invidious features of Canadian nation-building or official multiculturalism. . . .

Though often portrayed as progressive thinking, an ideology of liberal pluralism erases the fact that Canadian immigration and refugee policy, like its citizenship laws and requirements, have been characterised by exclusionary and discriminatory practises with regard to people of colour and ethnic minorities, women, and gays and lesbians. (Franca Iacovetta and Tania Das Gupta, Atlantis: A Women's Studies Journal 24.2, Spring 2000)
In any event, the main legal source of the problem at hand -- the male-dominated Islamic Institute of Civil Justice claiming "the right to hold tribunals, darul qada, in which marriage, family and business disputes can be settled according to sharia" (Hurst, May 22, 2004) -- is not the Canadian Multiculturalism Act but the Arbitration Act of 1991:
The government has no intention of stopping it.

Muslims can't be excluded from Ontario's 1991 Arbitration Act, which allows religious groups to resolve family disputes, says the attorney-general's office. Hassidic Jews have been running their own Beit Din arbitrations based on Jewish law for years. Catholics, too, even Ismaili Muslims. Rulings are binding, but must be consistent with Canadian laws and the Charter of Rights.

"There are safeguards built into the act," says Brendan Crawley, the attorney-general's spokesperson, who has been fielding calls from the world's press on the unprecedented decision.

"Participation must be voluntary by both parties and there is recourse if a decision doesn't abide by Canadian law. They can appeal to the courts." (Hurst, May 22, 2004)
As Ontario has already allowed other religious communities such as Catholics, Hassidic Jews, and Ismaili Muslims to practice binding arbitration based on their religious laws and regulations about civil matters, it will be difficult for left-wing critics of sharia to stop its use in Ontario while distinguishing their position from right-wing critics' -- short of challenging the 1991 Arbitration Act itself, an uphill struggle.

The Canadian Council of Muslim Women, which opposes the use of sharia in Ontario for good reasons, is placed in the sort of difficult position that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and other feminists of color have analyzed, having to fight a two-front war against conservative Muslim men who seek to define Islam according to their patriarchal terms and control Muslim women and right-wing Westerners who try to use Muslim women's struggles as ammunitions against all Muslims:
CCMW is cognizant that our stand regarding Sharia places us in a difficult position. We are a pro-faith organization of Muslim women, we do not want to provide further ammunition to those who are keen to malign Islam and yet we must be honest about the issues which affect us within the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Silence is not an option. We know that Muslim law is not monolithic, nor simple, nor applied consistently across the world and so we seriously question how it will be applied here in Canada and why is it needed here? The idealization of Muslim law based on a patriarchal family model does not work for women. We suggest that as with any law, it is problematic to apply some aspects and not consider the “totality” of the system, its context and its underpinning principles.

CCMW sees no compelling reason to live under any other form of law in Canada, as we want the same laws to apply to us as to other Canadian women. We like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which safeguard and protect our equality rights. Canadian law’s values are also the cornerstones of Islam and should be the basis of any Muslim law anywhere.

CCMW’s objective is to assist Canadian Muslim women to live under Canadian law which are congruent with Islamic ideals of social justice and equality. (The Canadian Council of Muslim Women, "Position Statement on the Proposed Implementation of Sections of Muslim Law [Sharia] in Canada," March 31, 2004)
In the case of Muslim women in Ontario, however, there is another front on which they must fight their battle:
In a May 7 letter to [an opponent of the use of sharia Homa] Arjomand [an Iranian woman who came to Canada as a refugee and is now a transitional counsellor in Toronto for immigrant women], John Gregory, general counsel to the attorney-general, acknowledged "the oppression that some Muslim women experience in Canada."

But that was not reason to deny the Islamic Institute the right to use the Arbitration Act.

"The family or community pressure that prevents (a woman) from going to court to dispute an arbitration seems likely to prevent her from going to court to assert her legal rights even without an arbitration." (Hurst, May 22, 2004)
As Spivak asked, "How should one examine the dissimulation of patriarchal strategy, which apparently grants the woman free choice as subject" ("Can the Subaltern Speak?" Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988], p. 299)? It's a tough question indeed, for which activists do not have any ready answer. A promising possibility of coalition building does exist, however. Canadian Muslim feminist activists may join hands with Hassidic Jewish and other women who are discontent with how the 1991 Arbitration Act has been used by male religious authorities in their own communities.

1 comment:

steve heeren said...

I really don't see what the problem is so long as participation is voluntary by both parties, there is recourse for decisions that don't abide by canadian law and decisions must be in accord with the Charter of Rights. To get all worked up about this suggests that we can't trust Muslim women living in Canada to know the score. My view is that Canadian women in general are very progressive, especially the younger ones, and to suppose otherwise essentially undermines the agency of Muslim and all women in this country.