When I heard about the Sharia court in Canada, I first thought it was a joke. When I realised it was real; that it was really happening, and when I read that soon Islamic courts may become a reality in Canada, I was overwhelmed; I was shocked. It sounded like a fantasy world. As a friend called it: the Islamic Republic of Canada is coming into being. I thought of my friends, like Homa, who escaped one Islamic republic only to end up in another. How many Islamic republics do we have to fight? One in Iran, one in Afghanistan, fighting the creation of another in Iraq, and now one in Canada.
I am sure, right now, some of you will think: 'please don't exaggerate, this is going too far. This is not about the whole of Canada, it is only about the so-called “Moslem community”. And it is only going to concern the civil and the family codes not other legal aspects. You are talking as though there is going to be stoning on the streets of Toronto, and furthermore, this is a voluntary matter, no one is forced to refer to these courts if they do not choose to. It is going to be purely “their own choice.”
Fine. Let's examine and see whether I am exaggerating, or this statement is underestimating the graveness of the situation, the enormity of this action, and the extreme risk we are taking vis a vis women's rights, children's rights and human rights.
The defence of this legislation is based on fallacies. The first is the argument that by creating Islamic courts parallel with the national courts – that is by allowing every community to have its own judicial system – we are respecting the rights of minorities, and by doing this we are thereby creating a less discriminatory society and supposedly a more egalitarian one.
This is totally a false assumption. By defining the rights of communities as opposed to the rights of individuals or rather citizens, we are discriminating against a section of the society. We are depriving some citizens of their equal rights and universal rights recognized by the society. In the face of the law we should recognize citizens and not collectives, or communities. By recognizing communities and assigning some arbitrary rights based on a particular culture or religion to that collective we are leaving the members of that particular community at the mercy of the inherent power struggle of the community. The so-called leaders of that community, be it elders, or the mullahs are gaining power over the individuals.
To recognize two or more sets of values, laws and rights in a single society is a discriminatory practice. By doing this, we are, in fact, defining different categories of citizens, and to do that on the basis of different ethnicity, religion and culture is nothing but racism, pure and simple. We are assigning different laws, rights and norms and standards to each different ethnic or religious group.
The concept of citizen and citizen's rights are modern concepts achieved by decades of libertarian struggle. The reduction of the church's power over society is another achievement. The world has made important strides towards the recognition of concepts such as human rights. In fact the struggle against sexism and for women's rights has been such a process.
In the case of Islamic courts and empowering them with legal procedures regarding civil disputes or family disputes, we are leaving women in the so-called Moslem communities at the mercy of Islamic laws and traditions, which are clearly discriminatory against women. There has been a long battle in countries under the rule of Islam by the women's liberation movement to achieve a secular system and secular legislation in order to diminish discrimination against women and promote the recognition of equal rights for women in the realm of family as well as the society as a whole.
The second fallacy is the argument that says referrals of family disputes to Islamic courts, and Islamic arbitration is voluntary and a matter of personal choice. This argument sounds very libertarian and legitimate. But this is only a fancy faÁade for imposing a patriarchal value system on women and children. Intimidation and force of communal moral pressure are tools of keeping women subjugated. No human being in her right mind would choose to deprive herself of equal rights, and into a subordinate position.
Under the patriarchal value system, such as Islamic traditions and norms, women are deprived of equal rights in matters such as marriage, divorce, custody and running of family matters and family disputes. Women in these communities are forced by intimidation and the communal moral pressure to accept this inequality as the norm, as the natural and divine law and to respect it. Creating a legal system and empowering the so-called leaders of the community with legal powers as well as religious and moral power will reduce the choice for women to live a more equal life. It will diminish women's rights to equal opportunity; it will isolate women from the broader society and ghettoize their lives.
Any women's rights activist and analyst will tell you that the family and the dynamism of family life and family order are the pillars of women's subordination in the society. Some argue that Islamic courts only deal with mundane issues, such as family law. This is a self-serving argument to fog the real issues involved. The women's liberation movement has fought long and hard to reform family laws and the structure of power inside the family. By recognising Islamic courts we are turning the clock back for women living under Islamic traditions.
The society is duty-bound to offer every woman equal opportunity and equal access to equal and universal laws. No one has the right to deny any woman, whether in Islamic communities, Jewish or any other, from this basic right. In an environment based on patriarchy, an old value system, and traditions so clearly misogynist, there can be no question of exercising your choice freely. The choice will be that of the strong partner in the relationship.
We have witnessed in the past decades, a glorification of culture as a primary issue dictating people's lives and rights. Culture has come to take precedence over human rights, equality, liberation, rights of individuals, children's rights and women's rights – concepts and issues which have been long argued and have prominence in modern and civilized civil societies. The birth of cultural relativism and its recognition in the society as a credible concept is the result of this process.
I ask you why an arbitrary concept as culture must be so glorified that takes precedence over prominent issues such as freedom, equality, and justice. Why should people be categorized and placed in different pigeon holes according to culture or religion. These should be private matters. There is no justification for assigning such prominent status to culture which overshadows any sense of justice, equality and freedom, the achievements of long battles fought by freedom loving people and socialists for more than two centuries.
I like to reflect on another issue here. As it regards the Islamic courts, we are dealing with a movement, which has gained political power in some influential countries and has become well known internationally: political Islam. In my opinion, it is a reactionary and misogynist movement. I am talking here to you as a first hand victim of political Islam. I can show you here among the audience many more victims of this brutal movement. There are many women and men here today who have fled the torture, execution threats, and humiliation of political Islam. For us to see that the seeds of an Islamic republic are being sown here in Canada is terrifying.
Let me briefly take you back to the 11th of September 2001. The horrific day that thousands were killed in the most horrendous manner. It was not only the number of human beings who lost their lives that shook the world, it was the manner in which it happened. As a result of this tragedy political Islam was marginalized and came under increasing pressure. The crimes of this brutal movement in Afghanistan and Iran were exposed. People in the world became appalled by the atrocities committed by political Islam.
However the actions by the U.S. and Britain, the attack on Iraq and the bullying attitude adopted by the U.S. created a ground on which this movement began to build a psychological and propaganda campaign to present itself as the victim of Western racism. It began to create a feeling of guilt among decent freedom loving people in the West. The crimes and atrocities inflicted by the U.S. in Iraq and against immigrants and people from Middle Eastern origin became a source that political Islam came to cash in on to appear as ëvictim'. After that date, political Islam took our belief in freedom and equality hostage to serve its own interests. Our decency became a source for their exploitation.
The term Islamophobia came into being. And once more after we have pushed back cultural relativism to the margins we came to fight a new monster. We were threatened by them and frowned upon by well-intentioned people for criticising Islam and its treatment of women, for criticising the veil, especially child veiling. The movement that flogged us, tortured us for not observing the veil, and made us flee our homes and seek refuge here, now calls us racist. We should not let this happen. This mockery must be stopped. We should put and end to this charade of victimization and self- righteousness by a movement that has terrorized millions of women into submission and subjugation.
It is true that we are the first hand victims of political Islam, but we are not mere victims. We belong to a vibrant, dynamic, strong, and progressive movement, which has fought political Islam not only in Iran, not only in Iraq, and not only in the Middle East but also here in the West. We have raised the banner of freedom and equality not only for women but for humanity and are fighting to push back religion to its rightful place – that is to the private sphere.
We are fighting to diminish the role of religion in the running of society, to separate religion from education and the state, and judiciary. We have raised the banner of secularism. We are the front runner of the secular movement in Europe, and now in Canada. Women's rights, equality and freedom need the secularisation of the society. We have organised this fight; we are at the forefront of this struggle, and we are proud of it. We will not allow political Islam to take root in the West and we will soon uproot it in the Middle East as well.
The above is a speech prepared by Azar Majedi for an International Women's Day panel on March 8, 2004 on Sharia Courts and Women's rights. Azar Majedi is the head of the Organisation of Women's Liberation.