www.sacw.net | March 17, 2005

South Asian Women's Community Centre (SAWCCóMontreal, Canada) position on the recommendation to use the Arbitration Act of Ontario to settle family legal matters based on religious laws.

For Montreal panel presentation orgd by FFQ, at UQAM, Thursday 17 March 2005

1. The SAWCC has been involved in information gathering and discussions on this issue since last summer. Our membership comprises women of different religious backgrounds, many of whom are observant members of Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. At our Annual General Meeting in September 2004 we passed a resolution against the possible adoption of religion-based forms of family law for Muslims in Ontario [as an alternative, community-based form of arbitration in family law cases]. Our membership of the SAWCC also wanted this kind of arbitration to end in religious communities where it was already being used since 1991.

2. There are many issues that we considered while coming to this conclusion. Some of them are:

  1. We are very conscious that opposition can come from a racist perspective, especially at this historical juncture when Islam is demonized and having a Muslim identity makes one immediately suspect as a terrorist. We are also aware that a sensitivity to feeding racist preconceptions may make some reluctant to articulate their concerns.
  2. In a post 9/11 world where government laws and agents of state demonstrate Islamphobia, it is curious that official concern for 'multiculturalism' and 'religious freedom' are cited by these same governments when it comes to issues that will have a huge impact on women.
  3. It is curious that this kind of arbitration is only being used for family law, not criminal law. It is dangerous to categorize family matters as occupying the private sphere. As women we are aware of how the public/private distinction has been used to control and oppress us. We won't go back there. Anything that involves the rights of women are a public concern. The personal is political.
  4. In our work over the past quarter century we have seen many women being forced by community pressure to seek counsel/assistance/ intervention from religious figures in temples, gurdwaras, mosques -- institutions that uphold patriarchal constructs of family and community -- These interventions often worked to the detriment of the women -- psychological, emotional and other forms of coercions were brought to bear. In our work trying to get justice for the murder of Milia Abrar we have seen how community pressure worked -- elders warned that this is what happens when traditions are flouted and possible witnesses were silenced.
  5. We recognize that our secular laws are far from perfect. Legislative bodies need to strengthen laws, for example to protect women from male violence -- a man who batters his partner gets a rap on the knuckles. If that same man were to assault a stranger on the street it would be another matter. AND Most recently the discussions around same sex unions have demonstrated how the reactionary outcry from some members of cultural communities can be very strident. We do not want to give the slimmest opportunity to these kinds of individuals to control our lives.

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