Imagine public speaking while you are under a death threat.
That's what three heavily guarded speakers were forced to do August 12 at U of T's Earth Sciences Building at a meeting of 400 hosted by the International Campaign Against Sharia Court.
U of T police, bolstered by the RCMP and personal bodyguards, kept a wary watch as Dutch member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Canadian TV host and writer Irshad Manji and Iranian-born social worker Homa Arjomand urged Ontario not to establish sharia law courts.
Although Manji, a lesbian Muslim reformist and author, has had her share of death threats for writing The Trouble With Islam (and not just for the prose), it is Ayaan Hirsi Ali who must live under 24-hour security. At the age of five in Somalia, she was genitally mutilated a cultural, not an Islamic tradition. Hirsi Ali later escaped an arranged marriage and fled to Holland, where she became an MP and established the Islam Reform Project.
She wrote the script for the film Submission, directed by Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (grand-nephew of Vincent), who was murdered last year by a Muslim fundamentalist. A note stabbed to his chest threatened her as well. Time magazine selected Hirsi Ali as one of the most influential people of 2004.
But despite the charged atmosphere, this meeting's only clashes are a few feisty verbal exchanges when sharia court enthusiasts berate the panel. Three heavily veiled women in the audience one with even her hands covered are furiously taking notes and shaking their heads.
The oldest veiled woman comes to the mic. "Do you speak Arabic?" she asks Hirsi Ali sharply. This is to become a motif; apparently, Muslims who speak Arabic are better interpreters of the Koran than non-Arabic-speaking Muslims. "No,' responds Hirsi Ali.
"Well, if you spoke Arabic you would know that Islamic law says "leave,' not "beat,' the wife," says the woman at the mic, addressing a section of the code that most scholars interpret as giving a husband the right to beat his disobedient wife.
"Then why," asks Hirsi Ali, regal in a red suit and heels, her posture impeccable, "does it not also say that women may "leave' their husbands?" The audience erupts in hoots and applause.
Indeed, sharia law, a code meant to cover religious rituals and everyday life, is all about how scholars construe the Koran. That's why there's not one code but several, depending upon the country. But do we really want official recognition here of a system with a built-in bias against women? Canadian women with fewer divorce rights than men? Canadian women facing an inbuilt bias in favour of husbands getting custody of older children in divorce? Canadian women with fewer inheritance rights than their brothers?
In one way, this is all too late. The proposal for courts only extends the already existing use of sharia law, which, along with other faith-based family dispute resolution processes like the one for Orthodox Jews, was made legal by the 1991 Arbitration Act.
But this act is exactly what sharia court detractors want rescinded. On September 8 they are heading to Queen's Park to join embassy protests in a number of European cities demanding that the Ontario Libs get rid of all religious meddling in the judicial system.
Sharia supporters respond that they feel secure that women's rights will be completely protected in the proposed tribunals: the system is completely voluntary, claimants can appeal any ruling, and the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms always takes precedence.
But Hirsi Ali and Arjomand argue that while that's all very nice in theory, few devout Muslim women, many of whom are newcomers, would challenge a sharia ruling. "I work with abused women,' says Arjomand, "and I know they have no opportunity to say no to their husband, brothers or these arbitrators. These women have no choice but to stay in an abusive relationship or commit suicide.'
Says Hirsi Ali in her calm Somali-accented English, "Women in minority communities are very, very dependent on their families, clans and religious communities. They cannot stand up to that [sharia], and it would be wrong, really wrong, for a liberal democracy like Canada to allow it.'
As she speaks, a particularly frightening stone-faced female bodyguard looms just inches from her.
A man from Iran whose name is Islam stands up. "It is not a linguistic problem about what the Koran says," he asserts. "The beating of women is a physical, realistic oppression. You see it everywhere in Islam."
Another participant, a divertingly good-looking young man, complains that Manji doesn't even pronounce "jihad correctly.' Manji defends herself, saying she reads the Koran in Arabic.
Addressing the questioner, Hirsi Ali says, "I am fascinated by your sense of priority. There are millions of Muslim women who are subjugated, and people like you say it is in the Koran. Here I have this strong, handsome, highly educated gentleman. [Hirsi Ali is clearly practised in dealing with men.] You! And you come and attack three women who have done nothing else but put the lens for the first time on all those women who are oppressed. I'm really fascinated by men like you. You never, never bring up the subject of the oppression of Muslim women. Is it because you have a stake in that?'
The applause and hooting is extended. The young man stalks out.
When Irshad Manji gives her address, she calls for a reinterpretation of Muslim law before sharia law should even be considered. "Muslims who wish to live "by the book,' as we say in this country, have no choice but to make choices about what to emphasize in the Koran," she says. "Selectiveness is inevitable, and that's good news, because it means that alternate interpretations are possible. We self-defining, moderate Muslims have got to be vocal about what those liberal interpretations are.
"There are female-friendly passages in the Koran. Women have every right to reject marriage, and the Koran actually encourages them to impose conditions on the terms of marriage,' says Manji, the only one of the three who is not a secularist.
A recurring concern for many activists against sharia, especially for Jews, is that the campaign may in this post-9/11 climate be construed as wholesale racism against Muslims and Arabs. But Hirsi Ali is reassuring. Sensitivity to this issue, she says, should not block the anti-sharia movement.
Hirsi Ali, who now defines herself as secular, says she is constantly accused of racism by Dutch intellectuals. "Has political correctness gone too far and stopped us from challenging?" she asks. Are we really going to tolerate the subjugation of women in the name of respecting someone else's culture?
"I come from Somalia. In Somalia, female genital mutilation is high culture. Would you say to a Somali minority [that it's all right to] practise female genital mutilation in Canada?"