Douglas Todd: Divorce, Shariah and gold coins

 I always find Todd’s articles of interest and this one is no exception:

Lawyer Zahra Jenab often comes face to face with couples embroiled in acidic disputes over a small fortune in gold.The West Vancouver family lawyer, who was born in Iran and raised in Canada, works frequently with ex-partners wrangling over thousands of gold coins, which may or may not have been given by the husband in a dowry under Islamic Shariah law.

Canadian courts are increasingly being called upon to rule on religious laws of the Middle East and Asia. But they’re finding it tricky to distribute family property across nations and in an era when dowries contain symbolic promises of Qur’ans along with valuable coins.

Jenab has made her way through hundreds of trans-national divorces in which Canadian family law clashes with traditions from Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, East Africa and East Asia, and her desk is piled with yellow case files.

When separating immigrant women and men ask her why their divorces can’t follow the rules of their old country, Jenab has to tell them: “Because we’re in Canada, now.”

Estranged couples can be devastated when they discover the religious laws of their homelands don’t apply in Canada.

“My heart often breaks for the suffering couple,” Jenab said. “But the driving issue is Shariah property law.”

As trans-national divorce increasingly falls under the scrutiny of Canadian judges, the decisions they’re making about what Shariah says about the distribution of property are “all over the map,” Jenab said.

Unfortunately, an expert witness on Shariah has not emerged to guide Canada’s courts.

The focus of many trans-national divorces in Canada is the often-considerable dowry, sometimes known as a mahr or meher, which is customary in most countries containing the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

“The dowry is financial security for the female. It is the man’s promise to provide finances, often in gold. It can be claimed by her at any time.”

When discord tears apart the bonds of matrimony, as it often does in all cultures, conflicts over often-unwritten promises about dowries can become intense.

In some countries where Shariah is enshrined, Jenab says, men can be arrested for not providing the dowry when the wife demands it.

…Property rights are also often not equal in many Muslim countries, where males are favoured.

Trans-national divorces, as a result, are often complicated when spouses work, or hold property, in their country of origin. “That makes the fair division of property hard to enforce.”

Many of Jenab’s clients, women and men, end up wanting both the benefits of Canada’s relatively equal family law and the advantages of their traditional religious culture.

They’re often stunned or angry, she said, when they learn Canadian family law — including the ideal of parents sharing joint custody of children — doesn’t line up with their religious customs.

“It’s difficult to see families struggle as they move out of their marriages, especially the children,” Jenab said. “That’s why I try to talk everyone down from taking a scorched-earth approach.”

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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