Marina Jiménez, Globe and Mail (Toronto), Sept. 9
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty will let down women and help the cause of political Islam if he allows faith-based arbitration to go ahead, anti-sharia demonstrators charged yesterday at an emotional rally in Toronto.
The protest was one of 12 in cities across Canada and Europe, as women’s and human-rights groups lobbied against a proposal to allow sharia tribunals in Ontario.
Homa Armojand, co-ordinator of the campaign, told about 300 protesters at Queen’s Park that the lobby to allow faith-based arbitration for Muslims in Ontario is “not a coincidence, but part of a global move pushed by leaders of political Islam who need validation from the government of the West.”
“McGuinty flirting with political Islam is playing a dangerous game,” Ms. Armojand said. “He is putting the lives of women and children in jeopardy. Shame.”
Michael Bryant, Ontario’s Attorney-General, responded in a press release yesterday saying the McGuinty government is “completely committed” to equality principles and women’s Charter rights.
Earlier this week, the Premier vowed that the rights of women will not be compromised if Ontario allows Islamic law to be used in family arbitration cases under the 1991 Ontario Arbitration Act.
The government is reviewing a report by former New Democratic attorney-general Marion Boyd that concluded that Muslims in Ontario should have the same rights as other religious groups to settle family disputes through faith-based arbitration as an alternative to the courts.
Ms. Boyd concluded that Muslim women are not being discriminated against and recommended safeguards to strengthen the existing arbitration system.
Mr. Bryant said yesterday that he is working with MPPs and the women’s caucus to ensure no binding family arbitration discriminates against women.
Critics say sharia is inherently discriminatory because, under a traditional interpretation of Islamic law, only men can initiate divorce, sons are entitled to inherit more than daughters, and men are automatically awarded custody of children after divorce.
Yesterday’s rally in Toronto was supported by organizations including Rights and Democracy, the YWCA, the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Canadian Labour Congress, as well as journalists Sally Armstrong and June Callwood.
“If in cases where sharia law conflicts with Canadian law, then Canadian law will prevail, then why not have Canadian law in the first place?” Ms. Callwood asked.
Added Ms. Armstrong: “You can’t even find two religious leaders in Canada who can agree on sharia. How will the government?”
Yesterday, Ontario’s New Democratic Party released a statement saying “arbitration has no place in family law.”
Sandra Pupatello, the Ontario minister responsible for women’s issues, said the government is working on a “very thoughtful” response to Ms. Boyd’s report.
Ms. Pupatello said she understands the fears — a small group of protesters showed up at her constituency office in Windsor yesterday. “But people in Ontario deserve to know that their government is going to protect them.”
Small protests also took place in European cities including Paris, where 200 people gathered outside the Canadian embassy, according to Michèle Vianès, president of Regards de Femmes, a non-governmental organization in France.
In London, about 30 people marched outside the Canadian high commission and met with Canadian officials, said Sohaila Sharifi, an Iranian immigrant living in London. “If sharia law is allowed in Ontario, then it sets a dangerous precedent and opens the door for similar groups to lobby for the same thing in other countries,” she said.
Mobin Shaikh, with the Masjid-Al-Noor mosque in Toronto, defended sharia yesterday, saying Islamic law favours women and “helps keep men in their place.”