SHARIA law for Australia is being mooted again. The Australian Muslim Mission and Islamic Friendship Association of Australia are advocating its introduction, especially in relation to family and inheritance, as these would be "an advantage" for women whose civil divorce is not recognised in Muslim countries.
Arbitration courts for conferring an Islamic divorce or even settling disputes based in religion may appear innocuous and a useful option, but relevant experience outside Australia highlights some of the problems.
The saga of sharia law in Ontario, Canada, is instructive. Proponents of sharia courts had argued that the Canadian government should not interfere in religious practice or education. Established under Ontario's Arbitration Act of 1991, these courts dealt with a spectrum of family and business disputes and, although the procedure was voluntary, court decisions were binding.
Homa Arjomand, a Canadian migrant from Iran, had long been aware of decisions that discriminated against women in terms of marriage, divorce and custody. In some cases, domestic violence had gone unpunished, divorced women were faced with minimal alimony and custody of children, and underage girls were sent back to countries of origin where they were forcibly married.
Aware of Islamist ideology and methods in the Iranian theocracy, Arjomand was alerted by a speech of Syed Mumtaz, leader of the Canadian Society of Muslims. In 2003, at the launch of the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice, Mumtaz declared that a "good Muslim" should choose sharia in preference to Canadian secular courts. He also said the new organisation was seeking to institute sharia tribunals. Arjomand believed these tribunals would restrict women further, imposing laws such as those that limited daughters' inheritance to half the portion of sons, and others according to which a woman's testimony counted for half that of a man.
She suspected women would be coerced into accepting participation in the arbitrations and although secular courts were not bound to approve sharia rulings, Muslim women would feel too intimidated to challenge Islamic court decisions. She feared these developmentswould compromise Muslim women's rights to equitable treatment under Canadian law and lead to a parallel legal system, so she launched a campaign against sharia courts in Canada.
Eventually Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty brought in legislation to ban all faith arbitrations. In 2006, Arjomand received the Toronto Humanist of the Year award.
In Britain, the Arbitration Act 1996 allows for alternative dispute resolution through sharia tribunals whose rulings are enforceable in county courts or the High Court. According to a report by the Civitas Institute, at least 85 official and unofficial sharia courts, often operating in mosques, arbitrate cases of family and financial disputes. Civitas has argued that any judgments that discriminate against women could be inconsistent with human rights law and has called for legislation to prevent legal enforcement.
Members of the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation in Britain have drawn attention to oppressive laws they escaped by migrating to the West and their desire to be governed by legislation based on universal human rights. Unwitting endorsement of traditional Islamic law and practice, they have warned, could increase domestic violence and "honour crimes" to the levels in their countries of origin.
A parallel legal system exists in Malaysia, affording fewer rights and protections to Muslim women in the context of polygamy, divorce, custody and inheritance. Women's rights activist Marina Mahathir, daughter of Malaysia's former prime minister, has labelled this "a kind of apartheid, not based on skin colour but religion".
Non-Muslim women have benefited from progressive secular laws while Muslim women have been subject to increasingly restrictive sharia laws (a shift also observed in parts of Indonesia). For example, Malaysia's parliament passed amendments to family law that would have made polygamy and divorce easier for men. They were eventually rescinded in 2006 following a campaign by women's rights activist Zainah Anwar and her organisation Sisters in Islam; the cabinet subsequently decided to allow the attorney-general rather than the religious department to assert control.
Reformers in many Muslim countries are battling for repeal of discriminatory sharia laws they claim are based on a narrow, patriarchal reading of the holy texts and not in keeping with the egalitarian ideals inherent in authentic Islam. On a wider level, progressive Muslims recognise that international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have precedence over religious considerations. These views were expressed in the Arab Human Development Report 2005, with the recommendation that Arab states remove sharia-related reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, particularly article two, which prescribes the principle of equality.
Quotas for women in legislative and political spheres also were advocated in the report.
These principles would appear to offer more advantages for Muslim women than traditional Islamic law and practice. In contrast, parallel sets of family law, sex discrimination in Islamic jurisprudence and growth in sharia law in neighbouring Muslim countries restrict women and could be troublesome for Australia.Ida Lichter is the author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression.