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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Will Canada introduce Sharia law?
By Laura Trevelyan
BBC correspondent, Toronto

Canada is a country well-known for being committed to multiculturalism, but now this most accepting of countries is debating whether tolerance has its limits.

Fast food restaurant next to a Mosque in Toronto
Not all Canadian Muslims want Sharia law introduced

The basketball hoops, the sprinklers, and the two-car garages made the Toronto street look like just another unremarkable North American suburb.

Except on this street I met Mr Mumtaz Ali, the first Muslim to qualify here as a lawyer, and now the man behind the proposal to introduce Sharia law to Canada.

Over a snack of fried chicken and Indian chutney, he told me about the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice.

A Muslim has the right to live as his religion wishes him to, Mr Ali explained, and under Sharia he can finally live like a true believer in his faith.

What is more, Mr Ali pointed out, in Ontario Orthodox Jews are able to settle their civil disputes in religious courts, so why not Muslims?

Under Sharia law a woman is worth half a man
Female Iranian exile

Why not indeed.

It is a question which the Ontario Government is currently wrestling with.

Mr Ali puts the controversy over his plans down to what he calls post-9/11 Islamophobia.

It is probably true that Canada's neighbour, the United States, would not entertain Mr Ali's vision.

But Canada is different, and it is not just the legacy of 9/11 which is muddying the waters for Mr Ali. It is what Sharia represents to many Muslim women who have fled to Canada escaping repressive regimes.


Iranian exiles
Some women who fled Iran do not want Sharia law in Canada

Leading the charge against Sharia law here is a group of mainly Iranian women who fled from the theocracy of Ayatollah Khomeini a quarter of a century ago.

In a peaceful Toronto park, as the rain began to fall, several of these women told me why they are so viscerally opposed to the idea of Muslim religious law being used in Canada.

"I came here to escape Sharia," one woman told me. "Under it, a woman is worth half a man. He can divorce her and she has no rights."

Another woman who was tortured in Iran told me the very word Sharia made her shiver. To her it is synonymous with a brutal form of authoritarianism, which discriminates against women.

This is a chance for us to develop a progressive and tolerant form of Sharia... consistent with 21st Century notions of gender equality
Female PHD student

These Iranian exiles are creating a considerable PR problem for Mr Ali and his supporters.

But there are women who speak out in support of Sharia too.

In Mr Ali's front room, he introduced me to eloquent and educated Muslim women who accept that Sharia has a bad name because of how it has been interpreted.

"This is a chance for us to develop a progressive and tolerant form of Sharia, one that is consistent with 21st Century notions of gender equality," so a female PHD student told me.

Mr Mumtaz Ali
Mr Mumtaz Ali is convinced a compromise can be reached

"But how do you get round the fact that women do not have the same rights as men?" I asked.

"Well, they could," said the PHD student. "I think women should be able to get as much as men out of a divorce."

Mr Ali wants the Sharia courts to be used to negotiate pre-nuptial agreements, putting women in the driving seat.

"But inheritance law is unfair," I said, "women always get less than men."

"That is because women's outgoings are less than men's as the man must always support every woman in his family, so it is fair he gets more," I was told by a chorus of female voices.

No favourites

Marion Boyd, Leader of the Ontario government review
Marion Boyd must try to reconcile religious and legal viewpoints

Across town from Mr Ali and his front room supporters, I sat in on a class at the University of Toronto.

The class lecturer helped set up the first Toronto mosque where women and men pray together.

"I am cautiously optimistic," the academic told me. "This will force Canadian Muslims to define who they are. It could even be a Canadian contribution to an Islamic reformation."

In a dreary looking office block in downtown Toronto, I found the woman who will decide in September what fate awaits Mr Ali and his Sharia courts.

Marion Boyd, a lawyer and former feminist activist, has been asked by the Ontario Government to review the arbitration act which allows religious groups to settle civil disputes using their own courts.

She hinted strongly to me that the government could not allow Jewish courts and forbid Muslim ones; that would be discrimination. But Ms Boyd stressed that decisions reached by Muslim courts would have to be consistent with Canada's charter of rights and freedoms.

Canadian Muslims pray in mosque
Some Muslims feel they could fulfill their religious duty under Sharia law

I left Marion Boyd trying to reconcile respect for the rights of minorities with Canadian Law, and went to see a Toronto rabbi who heads a Beth Din court.

Muslims and Jews may not always be natural allies, but on this they are united. All religious people have the right to settle difficulties according to their religion, the rabbi told me, as he sat in front of a large poster of Jerusalem.

The problem the Ontario Government has is it cannot say: Jews, we like your law, it is good; and Muslims, we do not like yours, it is unfair to women.

They must find a way round that.

And this being Canada, they will find a way round it.

Since its creation, Canada has accommodated the rights of different minorities. This is just the latest challenge to a nation built on tolerance.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 26 August, 2004 at 1100BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Debate rages over women and Sharia
11 Jun 03  |  In Depth
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02 Jun 03  |  South Asia



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