Sharia and Shah Bano: Multiculturalism and Women's Rights

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article is a comparative examination of the 2005 sharia controversy surrounding the establishment of faith-based arbitration in Ontario, Canada, and a similar controversy in India after the 1985 Supreme Court Ruling favouring the claim of Shah Bano, a Muslim woman who challenged her husband in court for extended maintenance in contravention of Muslim Personal Law. I use the two controversies to interrogate the contentious issue of group rights and women's rights with particular reference to religious-based personal laws. The two cases demonstrate the patriarchal aspects of personal laws in the private and public realms and their politicization in the public realm. They also underscore the limits of multiculturalism in its potential to deal with the impacts of multicultural accommodation of group rights on the equality rights of women within these groups. My paper emphasizes the need to move beyond multiculturalism and highlights the strategic importance of mainstreaming feminist citizenship and human rights discourses into legal norms and practices relating to family law issues in multicultural societies.

Keywords: multiculturalism, personal laws, women's rights, cultural rights

Résumé : Cet article fait un examen comparatif de la controverse de 2005 sur la charia, autour de la création de tribunaux religieux d'arbitrage familial, en Ontario, au Canada, et une controverse similaire en Inde, suite à la décision de 1985 de la Cour Suprême qui donnait raison à la revendication de Shah Bano, une femme musulmane qui poursuivait son mari pour l'avoir maintenue pour une longue période de temps en contravention avec la Muslim Personal Law (c.-à-d. la charia). J'utilise les deux controverses pour interroger la question litigieuse des droits collectifs et des droits des femmes en référant particulièrement aux lois sur les personnes à fondement religieux. Les deux exemples démontrent les aspects patriarcaux des lois sur les personnes dans les domaines privé et public, et leur politisation dans le domaine public. Ils soulignent aussi les limites du multiculturalisme dans son potentiel à gérer les impacts de l'accommodement multieulturel des droits collectifs sur le droit à l'égalité des femmes au sein de ces groupes. Mon article souligne le besoin d'aller audelà du multiculturalisme et met en lumière l'importance stratégique d'intégrer les discours féministes sur la citoyenneté et les droits humains dans les normes et pratiques juridiques relatives aux enjeux de loi familiale dans les sociétés multiculturelles.

Mots-Clés : multiculturalisme, lois sur les personnes, droits des femmes, droits culturels

Introduction

This article traces the unfolding and outcome of the sharia controversy in Ontario, Canada and the Shah Bano conflict in India to discuss then- siimlarities and differences in relation to the key issues of women's rights, cultural rights and identity poUtics in multicultural settings. Specifically, I draw insights from the two cases to examine their implications for multiculturalism and women's rights as equal citizens.

The rights of cultural minorities and the ideals and values of democratic citizenship are two areas that have received considerable attention in recent times (KymUcka and Norman 2000). They are also the areas that have caused the most tension in Canada and countries such as France, England and Germany with a significant number of immigrants. In these countries, personal laws and other cultural symbols (e.g., veüing) have become the battleground for the defense of purportedly "authentic" religious and ethnic traditions and identities, with gender often being the focal point in these battles. MulticulturaUsm has provided a context for groups to negotiate their coUective cultural rights and citizenship rights as part of multicultural accommodation and equality of citizenship (see Asad 2006; Kepel 2004; Soysal 2001; Turner 1993; Wilson 1997; Yuval-Davis 1997). …