Muslims in Ontario established an arbitration board in October that can apply principles adapted from the Qur'an or from Canadian law. The Islamic Institute of Civil Justice will give Muslims a tribunal to resolve contract, will, and custody cases. Provincial or federal courts can enforce or overturn arbitration rulings.
"If Canadian Muslims have an impartial body they trust, it will ease the backlog in the courts," Mohamed Elmasry told The Ottawa Citizen. "If a husband and wife go back to the community, maybe mediation will solve the problem."
Some observers are concerned, however, that the system could cheat women who are unaware of their legal rights, are economically dependent on men, or believe, because of their religious faith, that they are required to submit to male relatives or religious leaders.
Under the Arbitrations Act, Ontario courts are required to uphold arbitrators' decisions if both sides enter the process voluntarily and if results are fair, equitable, and do not violate Canadian law. Determining voluntary participation is the point of contention.
Glenn Penner, director of Voice of the Martyrs Canada, said that women in moderate Muslim households or who have converted to Christianity would not consider themselves subject to the tribunal.
"The concern that we legitimately have with this," Penner said, "is that although both parties are to agree to this, women in conservative Islamic households might not feel that they have the right to say no to the process."
Alia Hogben, director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, questions why the tribunal is required when the Canadian legal system is already in place. Some women from a Toronto mosque have been serving as mediators for several years.
Janet Buckingham, of the Ottawa-based Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's Centre for Religious Freedom, says Canadian courts have "jurisdiction to overturn an arbitration decision if it is 'unfair' in law to one party." For example, prenuptial agreements, divorce settlements, or child custody agreements would be binding unless they violated ordinary rules pertaining to contracts, she said.
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