|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
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 façade 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’ 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
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 USA and Britain, the attack on Iraq
and the bullying attitude adopted by the US 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 US 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 ‘victim’.
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
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