The legal system in Canada is based on a long tradition of jurisprudence yet is fairly progressive and most people would consider this a good thing. Canadians currently enjoy not only freedom of religion but freedom from religion and endangering these rights for some Canadians seems unfair, notwithstanding the protections offered by the Charter.
Protest rises over Islamic law in Ontario
Muslim women's groups vow to stop sharia courts
Lawyers say it will lead to injustices to most vulnerable
When Britain's Muslim community requested the right to use Islamic law to settle family disputes, the government's refusal was unequivocal.
No, the petitioners were told: This is one nation, with one justice system for all.
Until last fall, no Western jurisdiction allowed the 1,400-year-old body of religious law called sharia to take root inside its secular legal system.
Then the province of Ontario quietly approved its use. Under the 1991 Arbitration Act, sharia-based marriage, divorce and family tribunals run by the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice are expected to begin later this year. The move has so horrified many Muslim women that they're vowing to stop the tribunals before they start.
"We've had a flood of e-mails from people, asking `How can we help?'" says Alia Hogben, president of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, whose 900 members come from a variety of Islamic sects.
They were outraged that Muslim women could be coerced into taking part in sharia tribunals or face family and community ostracism — or worse.
Why, they asked, should these women be treated differently from other Canadian women?
"When you come to Canada, you are a human being with full rights," says Jonathan Schrieder, a Toronto civil litigation lawyer. Allowing sharia here — even a "Canadianized" version, as its proponents claim — "will subject Muslim women to a huge injustice."
Schrieder is so alarmed at the prospect that he, like a half-dozen other Toronto lawyers, has offered his services pro bono in the fight to halt it.
Many others are appalled that Ontario is setting a precedent that other secular nations will be pressured to follow.
To writer Sally Armstrong, whose work has taken her to several Muslim countries, Ontario's move is a "human rights catastrophe."
Her 2002 book, Veiled Threat, described the oppression of women in Afghanistan under the extreme sharia rule of the Taliban, but she has also documented their harsh lot in nations such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Jordan. Sharia interpretation varies from culture to culture, but in no instance does it regard women as equal to men.
"Sharia law doesn't work as it is supposed to work in a single country," says Armstrong. "Why does Ontario's justice system think it will work here?"
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