Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


Let’s reject Sharia, but treat women like second-class citizens anyway

I know I have a lot of non-Canadian readers whose exposure to Ontario news is limited to what they read on this blog, so after last week, many of them might have been left with the impression that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty isn’t an absolute tool. And even though TD&M isn’t a political blog, I really can’t allow that assumption to stand. Because, see, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is an absolute tool, despite some lapses of character a few weeks ago.

The background is this: in 1991, Ontario started allowing various flavours of faith-based arbitration - a system of religiously-based civil courts, superceded by Ontario civil law, which members of various religions could voluntarily enter to settle disputes. Since then Ontario has had a number of such courts, including the Jewish Bet Dins, and a Catholic system that had the power the annul marriages. And this system was so successfully integrated into the civil justice system that hardly anyone in Ontario even knew it existed, let alone complained about it.

Fast forward a decade and change, when the Canadian Islamic Congress started floating the possibility of introducing Sharia courts as a means of settling disputes among Muslims who wanted their own faith-based system. Suddenly, faith-based courts were in the news - and many of the most vocal, most articulate opponents of the proposed Ontario sharia courts were Muslim women themselves, many of whom were refugees who had escaped from Sharia-style “justice” overseas.

At the centre of this debate was Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who had the power to accept or reject the Sharia courts.

I watched with detached interest to see how this would be resolved. In Canada, multiculturalism is valued to the point that no elected official, even one as duplicitous as McGuinty, would publicly make a statement that could be construed as valuing one religion over another.

And, sure enough, this played out in a quintessentially Canadian way, with a heaping serving of self-righteousness and sexism on the side.

Earlier this week, after weathering dozens of protests across Canada and public statements against sharia, McGuinty scrapped the proposed courts - along with the other religious courts that had existed for a decade and a half without problems.

McGuinty insisted Sunday his government wasn’t taking away rights from Christian and Jewish groups because it was afraid to give similar rights to Muslims after claims that Shariah law was, at its heart, unfair to women.

In other words, even though he’s following the advice of the anti-Sharia protesters by scrapping the plans for those courts, it’s not like he’s, God forbid, listening to them. Despite the fact that, well, every single one of the Sharia protests was led and supported by people who were concerned that Sharia was, at its heart, unfair to women - don’t worry, that’s not why McGuinty is rejecting the idea! He’s not concerned with that girly stuff! It’s not like he’s a feminist or anything!

Why is he rejecting the Sharia courts?

“The debate over Shariah law has caused us to ask a pretty fundamental question: Can religious arbitration be part of a cohesive multicultural society? It’s become apparent to me that it cannot,” he told The Canadian Press.”

Except that, well, that was never the question. At least not until McGuinty asked and answered it all in one fell swoop, causing defenders of the already-existing faith-based courts to wake up, rub their eyes, and wonder if they slept in an extra few days because when they went to sleep, no one was even talking about their courts.

But worry not! McGuinty does take women’s concerns into consideration when making decisions:

The premier said his wife, Terri, had not raised the sharia law issue with him during the lengthy debate, but noted the 17 women in his Liberal caucus urged him to reject the idea.

His wife. For weeks he completely ignored the concerns of seventeen elected members of his caucus, but if only his wife, an elementary school teacher, had broached the subject with him, maybe he’d have changed his mind. And those seventeen caucus members weren’t wondering whether religious abitration could be part of a cohesive multicultural society - they were objecting to the sharia courts on the grounds that they were discriminatory. Which is just a side issue to that “pretty fundamental question”. If that. (Thanks to wolfangel for highlighting that gem.)

I’ve got plenty of other thoughts on this issue - in short, I think that this “all or nothing” approach to religious arbitration is a cop-out, and doesn’t recognize the fact that many aspects of religion, can, and should, be evaluated on their own merits, and the divide between Religious Practices and A Secular Society is an artificial one, and anyone who disagrees with me can put their money where their mouth is by dipping into their own holiday time to take Christmas off, and don’t even try to tell me that Christmas is a secular holiday - but really, I think this is quite enough for now.

In the meantime, we can all commend Dalton McGuinty for his devotion to equality, and to one law for all. Previously, many Canadians were concerned that Muslim women would not be respected as equals in the Sharia courts, and that their concerns would be dismissed. McGuinty, however, has assured us by his actions that the concerns of all women, including those in his own caucus, would be dismissed equally.


  1. Well, I tend to think that this was the right choice (well, not the only one, but the only one that would have worked, given that McGuinty is himself), but I also tend to think that religious holidays should not be statutory, so that I could choose to work December 25 and take off some other day instead. Only Christians get their religious days off. (And yes, I grant that in some other countries — mostly Asian — Christmas is essentially secular. It’s not here. Later: my rant on saying ‘Merry Christmas’ for weeks on end.)

    - wolfangel — 9/15/2005 @ 12:38 pm

  2. My all-time favourite dialogue from the Simpsons was during one of their Christmas specials, when Bart and Lisa were watching Krusty’s Christmas (Kristmas?) show.

    Lisa: Wait, isn’t Krusty Jewish?
    Bart: (in exasperation) Lisa, Christmas is the time of year when people from all religions gather together to worship Jesus Christ.

    Further to my statement about the artificial divide between relgious and secular life, we have this, from a defense of the sharia courts:

    “The debate around faith-based arbitration for Muslims has raised the notion that Muslim values are somehow outside the Judeo-Christian tradition…”

    Emphasis mine. Our existing courts didn’t hatch out of some atheist vision, no matter how much we pretend that to be so. So we’d do well to analyze which relics of religious law are still worthwhile and which ones are not, rather than continue to pretend that Ontario’s civil law is universal and religiously neutral.

    Agreed about the statutory holidays.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/15/2005 @ 12:56 pm

  3. Yes, I love that dialogue.

    My actual proposal is that faith-based arbitration be allowed, but always okayed by a judge or panel of trained, secular lawyers, or whatever. But there are problems, because some women might be willing to, eg, give up alimony to get a Get, and I’m not sure an entirely secular court would understand this. So in that sense, of course, it’s not religiously neutral; and if you’re in a religion which disagrees with the charter, it’s also not. I don’t think this is necesssarily a failing.

    I agree that the background of our law is religious. But we can keep things on their merits, and not worry about whether they are or are not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Lots of things are not part of it which we have, and there are lots of parts of it which we discard.

    - wolfangel — 9/15/2005 @ 1:42 pm

  4. At least it’s a consistent choice, which is rare for a politician. He’s saying he doesn’t respect faith-based courts at all (which was rare/unique? anyway), so ditches them all.
    The alternatives would either be bad for women or undermine the Shariah courts and Islam.

    - Ronald — 9/15/2005 @ 4:10 pm

  5. Butbutbut… I thought nobody took December 25 off for Christmas anymore. Isn’t the statutory holiday now officially known as The Winter Festival Of Commercialism, and definitely a secular holiday?

    - dave — 9/15/2005 @ 4:11 pm

  6. By the way, we don’t have Catholic “courts” in the U.S., but one does need to hire a canon lawyer and do quite a bit of stuff to get an annulment. (Stu has been involved in some of the process when he was a Church employee).

    The annulment has little to do with civil law, other than the Church requires you to be divorced in civil law in order to obtain an annulment. A Catholic annulment has no bearing on American family law; what it means are a couple things: a divorced Catholic can then get remarried in the Church, and they can receive the Eucharist. I imagine a divorced Catholic with an annulment could possibly take holy orders, too. (I’m just thinking of Teddy Kennedy joining the priesthood… =snort=) In any case, all the repercussions are purely religious.

    - meep — 9/15/2005 @ 4:38 pm

  7. My actual proposal is that faith-based arbitration be allowed, but always okayed by a judge or panel of trained, secular lawyers, or whatever.

    I’m under the impression that this wasn’t too far from what was proposed: that the faith-based courts would not be allowed to make any rulings that ran counter to Ontario civil law, and that any ruling in a faith-based court could be appealed in civil court. Of course, coercion is still an issue, but now I’m wondering about a number of things. One, why even have the faith-based courts at all - why not just go to a civil court and be represented by people of your own faith; and two, it’s not like civil issues have to be settled in court anyway. Amicable divorces often proceed via mediation, no? Is that sort of thing still allowed…as long as it’s not faith-based? Have non-religious folks never been coerced into settling things out of court?

    And since you bring up the issue of the Jewish Gets, I’m wondering why that never became an issue. The article you linked a few days ago started with a description of a Muslim woman who, under sharia law, wasn’t allowed to get a divorce without her husband’s permission. Which…sounds a lot like Jewish civil law. Perhaps one difference is that Jewish men whose wives want divorces tend to be pressured by the community to grant them. In Israel this takes (in my view) a rather odd form: divorces will not proceed without the husband granting a Get, but if he does not, then he may be jailed until he does. Why not just scrap the law? Anyway - I reckon that this sort of stigma associated with not releasing one’s wife to divorce does not exist among fundamentalist Muslims.

    Aaaand, speaking of marriage, Meep’s comments about Catholic annulments make me wonder if Dalton “one civil law for all Ontarians” McGuinty recognizes that rabbis and ministers and imams and priests are at present permitted to perform marriages, which fall under civil law. And every single argument about Muslim women being pressured into using sharia courts applies doubly to new immigrant women (and girls) being pressured to marry. I’ve long thought that religious and civil marriage should be separated (if you want a covenant with God, see a rabbi (or what have you); if you want a legal contract, see a judge. If you want both, see both. Suddenly the number of decent arguments against gay marriage goes from very few, to none), but I don’t think I’m in the majority. And there’s a huge example of civil law being not only rooted in religious law, but legally on par with it even in post-faith-based-tribunal Ontario.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/15/2005 @ 5:37 pm

  8. Well, if the faith-based courts had their results checked — apparently they were not — then I cannot see the issue. (Especially if there was a three-strikes-you’re-out for any arbitror. Or one strike, even.) Of course, I am not a lawyer, so there might have been something beyond this. But I get the impression that even though they weren’t allowed to go against the Charter, there was no oversight, so this was moot. But indeed, you’re allowed to have a lawyer of any religion, so that could be solved. I don’t really know what the possibilities for getting a divorce are, so I am not sure what has or has not been removed as an option: I must be missing something.

    The thing for gets is to have a prenuptual with fines if you refuse a get after a civil divorce has been granted (or after the other asks for one, or whatever).

    Incidentally, you have also hit my preferred way of dealing with marriage.

    - wolfangel — 9/15/2005 @ 7:08 pm

  9. For whatever it’s worth, I agree with you on the marriage issue. The whole “sanctity of marriage” arguement pulled out by conservatives against same-sex marriage stems from the conflation of the civil and religous aspects of marriage. I think “civil unions” are the answer–but by that, I mean civil unions for everyone, whether the couple involved collectively has an even or odd number of X chromosomes.

    - Chris Phan — 9/15/2005 @ 7:18 pm

  10. Yes, let’s turn all government-sanctioned marriages into civil unions. I entirely agree. You want a “blessing” on your union? Then go to whatever religious group you favor and hire a member of its clergy to perform the rites. However, you won’t have the state-sponsored rights and privileges that normally pertain to wedded couples unless you sign the civil-union contract, too. Oh, and speaking of “couples” … I don’t care if three or more people (of whatever combination of sexes) want to sign up for a civil union contract. It’s not as though attorneys who specialize in prenuptial agreements and divorce settlements won’t adapt instantaneously. A little legislation to make civil union partners jointly responsible for any children should be enacted, but we could leave most other details to the eager legal profession (which is where all current marriage disputes end up these days anyway). Thus my answer to those who claim same-sex marriage will lead to polygamy or polyandry is “Yeah, so?” Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

    - TonyB — 9/15/2005 @ 8:54 pm

  11. Hey, MS, I just noticed you added me to your blogroll. Cool. I’m sure you’re the first. Thanks!

    - TonyB — 9/15/2005 @ 8:57 pm

  12. Yep, the repurcussions of an annulment are purely religious.

    What it does is allow the person who has received the annulment to re-marry.

    That’s really the bottom line of it. An annulment is not necessary for a divorcee to receive communion as long as they haven’t re-married (this is widely misunderstood so a lot of divorced Catholics absent themselves from Communion without needing to).

    It’s also, strictly speaking not necessary to receive the annulment to receive holy orders, although it is a preferred option. There are actually a number of married priests in the Catholic priesthood now, although most were ordained outside the Catholic tradition and converted to Catholicism (mostly Orthodox, but some Anglican).

    - vito prosciutto — 9/15/2005 @ 10:45 pm

  13. See, this is the system that fixes all these problems. Everyone has to go through the public system and if you want to do something else, go ahead. If you want to do something with your club, follow their rules and fill out their forms; if you want to do something with our (i.e. society’s) club, follow our rules and fill out our forms.

    It also seems reasonable that if people agreed–voluntarily–to follow the judgement of some random person, then so long as no one was coerced and nothing else illegal happened, that should be fine. This doesn’t even have to apply solely to divorce settlements; it could apply to other things like civil suits too.

    The only thing that concerns me, especially with something like Sharia law, is the coersion, but if judges are required to do a thorough, mandatory review (as with all divorces in our system), it seems reasonable to allow it.

    - Nicholas — 9/15/2005 @ 10:51 pm

  14. Yes, Vito — I’m talking about people who have been civilly divorced — they would likely not be allowed to take holy orders (unless ex-spouse dies). I’m not talking about married men being accepted into the priesthood - ones that are still civilly married.

    Anyway, I agree that civil marriage stuff should be separated from the religious marriage stuff. That would definitely take the steam out of some of the anti-gay marriage arguments that religious leaders would be forced to perform marriages against their religion (that was =really= stretching it, guys. Catholic priests can’t be forced to marry people who don’t conform to Catholic marriage requirements =right=now=, so why would they be forced to in the future?)

    But getting back to the response I wanted to make to MS: A guy not listening to women’s opinions when an issue involving women is at stake? That’s never happened before.

    - meep — 9/16/2005 @ 1:31 am

  15. Along the lines of my remarks about the artificial line that McGuinty draws between faith-based and non-faith-based means of solving disputes, and my comments that “amicable divorces often proceed via mediation, no? Is that sort of thing still allowed…as long as it’s not faith-based?”, BruceR at Flit writes,

    This should be interesting: changing a discriminatory provincial law into an unenforceable one.

    There is no WAY Dalton’s solution is going to work, I’m afraid. You’ve got to give the guy credit for trying to cut the Gordian knot on the sharia arbitration issue. But there’s no way you can ban everybody, including devout Jews and Christians, from letting their religious principles be their guide in resolving a civil dispute by mutual agreement, yet allow them to do so if their principles are NOT religiously derived. Priests and rabbis (and imams) have been solving neighborhood disputes for centuries, and nothing’s going to change that. Show me how you construct that legal framework in a way that could possibly be consistently applied, let alone survive a Charter challenge. Prediction: he’ll be backpedalling on this in time for the Monday night news.

    And he’s right, and quotes McGuinty clarifying that “…no longer will religious arbitration be deciding matters of family law.” (Read the whole post at Flit; BruceR makes a lot of good points, some of which I touched upon but didn’t develop.) But again, damned if marriage doesn’t fall into the category of family law, and I think that religious heads are, collectively, majority shareholders in the marriage market.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/16/2005 @ 3:53 am

  16. I don’t think McGuinty has especially good political radar. I am sure he dreaded the thought of inventing a mechanism for evaluating religions on compatibility with Ontario law. That path leads to all sorts of hairy questions: “to what degree is Christianity still a basis for our legal system?” and even “what is justice?”.

    Like any politician, McGuinty senses pressure on an issue and responds to it, but the force of his response seems very uneven. This was especially apparent in the last Ontario election, where all he pretty much had to do to beat Eves was to not say anything stupid and not talk too much about social spending, to deflate the Tories’ one argument (”tax-and-spend Liberal”, etc.). Instead he went on TV and promised no tax increases. It probably improved his margin of victory, but it didn’t help in the long run, when he raised them anyway.

    - saforrest — 9/16/2005 @ 7:04 am

  17. California has civil annulments, which are separate from summary dissolutions and other divorces. (See, for example, the recent news about Renee Zellwiger.) When you get a civil annulment, it’s as if you were never married in the first place for legal purposes — so your “ex” isn’t really your “ex” because you were never “really” married.

    They are hard to get and expensive and not well publicized.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 9/16/2005 @ 2:21 pm

  18. Yes, that’s what annulment means in the Catholic Church, too. If you get an annulment, it’s as if you had never been married, according to the Church. And no, it’s not necessarily easy to get (for most people).

    - meep — 9/16/2005 @ 4:47 pm

  19. But Catholic annulments can coexist with civil divorces, whereas civil annulments and civil divorces are an either/or thing.

    And saforrest, I agree, though I think that this goes beyond not having good political radar. Can you think of a single Canadian politician - outside Alberta or the federal Conservative party - who would enact a law that could even remotely be construed as saying that Judaism and Catholicism are more civilized religions than Islam? I can’t. Which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. I’m just chafed that McGuinty seemed to be hellbent on making it perfectly clear that his concern wasn’t about women’s issues or anything.

    A related anecdote, which saforrest has heard a dozen times already - twice before federal elections I’ve attended all-candidates debates in which the candidates were all asked about their commitment to women’s issues. On each occasion the Liberal candidate (two different people) stood up, cast a smug glance at his Conservative peer, and proclaimed that unlike some people, he thought abortion should be legal. And then he sat down. And then there was applause. The Liberals lost my vote both those times because of that alone. Abortion is a total non-issue in Canada - there has been no movement on the issue in years, and there won’t be for years to come, if ever. And these Liberals, no doubt, gained votes by stating their support - which requires zero effort towards women on their part- for something that’s never going to arise in the legislature as long as they’re in office. But by doing so, they’ve done their part toward women and don’t even have to acknowledge that there might be anything else we’re concerned with. They listened to women once! We expect them to do it again? (At the risk of stating the obvious, this anecdote should not be taken to mean that I want to talk about abortion in this thread. At most I will talk about talking about abortion in this thread.)

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/16/2005 @ 4:59 pm

  20. Well, at some points there were Conservatives/Reform making noises about how it shouldn’t be. So I can imagine some circumstances in which saying how abortion should be legal is one point that should be made (among many).

    - wolfangel — 9/18/2005 @ 6:17 am

  21. And at none of those times did polls indicate that the Conservatives had a fighting chance of attaining a majority of seats in the House of Commons. Moreover, a substantial number of Conservatives - at least a large minority - supported legal abortion. And not a single member of the the Bloc Quebecois or the NDP would have voted to restrict abortion rights in any way. Meanwhile, a handful of Liberal MPs were vocally prolife, which didn’t seem to concern Chretien or Martin at the time, who decided to fall back on partisan screeching about how much of a threat those evil Alliance/Conservative folks were for even suggesting a debate on the topic without making the prochoice position part of the party platform (which the NDP had done). Given the realistic possibilities for the composition of the House of Commons in 2000 and 2004, I can confidently say that the Liberals would have held the balance of power toward changing abortion laws. If every single Liberal MP could be counted on to oppose an anti-abortion private member’s bill, then there’s no way that that bill would have passed. None. But instead of expressing the same lack of tolerance for anti-abortion Liberal MPs as they expressed for anti-abortion Conservative/Alliance MPs, Chretien and Martin, along with some of their more opportunistic MPs, resorted instead to cheap political potshots.

    So I stand by my point that slamming the Alliance/Conservatives was a zero-effort substitute for actually doing anything about women’s concerns.

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/18/2005 @ 8:47 am

  22. I will certainly grant that it was a “let’s pat them on their pretty little heads and they will go away” move, but one which could be marginally argued for (eg, it would have been entirely absurd, not just mostly, for any Liberal in Quebec to have done the same — and I do not believe any did so).

    I find myself in an uncomfortable position in elections, because I really like Cotler, but do not want to vote Liberal, for these and a number of other reasons.

    - wolfangel — 9/19/2005 @ 8:59 am

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