A recent case before the ACT Supreme Court has again drawn attention to the treatment of women in Sharia law, renewing calls among rights activists against its acceptance within Australia’s legal system.
In March, the daughter of Ms Mariem Omari, a devout Muslim, contested an inheritance worth only half of the financial share given to each of her brothers.
Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Hafez Kaseem, through his spokesman Mr Keysar Trad, said the division of assets in favour of males, like the Omari case, reflected Muslim men’s responsibility under Sharia to support their wives.
AFIC called for provisions of the Islamic code to be formally included into family law, part of its submission last year to a Federal Government inquiry into multiculturalism.
Mr Trad said secular law failed to reflect their faith and urged inclusion of Sharia law for Muslims where it applies to marriage, divorce, contracts and custody in Australia.
“We should be allowed to resolve our issues in-house,” Mr Trad said.
“We’re a well-established religion and all we’re asking for is to be a self-regulatory mechanism.”
Ex-Muslim, author and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, visiting Australia in April, has warned against any government recognition of Sharia, and said women’s unequal legal protection also placed them in extreme danger.
A statement by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation said Sharia encouraged forced marriage because contracts were signed between a groom and a bride’s father and granted child custody to the father in all divorce cases.
Last year, The Australian reported four separate cases of forced marriage that reached the Family Court involving immigrant families. One case involved a girl bride just 13 years of age.
Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon responded in recent months by introducing criminal punishments for those forcing women into arranged marriages.
Sharia laws have widespread informal use within Muslim communities, but Mr Trad acknowledged tight-knit faith communities exerted pressure on disputing parties – especially married parties – to consent to Sharia mediation, rather than to settle disputes in Australian courts.
“You’d expect both to consent,” he said.
“If a contract is by both, an obligation is to both, and a marriage is a solemn contract to satisfy the will of God.
“Secular law encroaches on all of that.”
Mr Trad denied suggestions Sharia law, that stated evidence given to a court by a woman was worth half of a man’s, meant unequal legal protection.
“In any money dispute, it’s expected as written in the Koran, for evidence to be given by two women for every one man,” he said.
“This is physiological.
“Women have pains and mood swings as a result of their menstrual cycle and can’t be expected the burden of clear heads on financial matters.”
He said fathers should also receive custody of children in most divorce cases.
“Mothers should not be placed in the position of supporting children and having a career.”
Director for the Centre for Muslim States and Societies Samina Yasmeen said both Muslims and non-Muslims were confused by cultural practices claimed to be part of its laws.
Open-minded Muslims feared to speak against Sharia’s more ‘orthodox’ interpretations, Professor Yasmeen said.
“There’s too much focus on imams as a main source of identity for Muslims in Australia.”
Sharia could be interpreted with equal respect for human rights, she said, but framing its codes into Australian law would only enforce its literal, more rigid meanings.
Professor Yasmeen said AFIC’s proposals to the Federal government inquiry represented a narrow interpretation of Sharia, but that most Muslim Australians also held a literal view of its codes.
“Muslim organisations in Australia are not unanimous, but if brought into the Australian legal system it will go to the extreme, enforcing patriarchal practices with a religious colour.
“If people knowingly move to a secular country, they should live within it. If we make too many concessions, we are in danger of losing the secular freedom of the law.” ♦