Winnipeg Free Press by Karen Busby 6 October 2015
Following 9/11, Islam transitioned from obscurity to notoriety in the Canadian psyche. Muslim women came to be perceived as subjugated women needing protection by the Canadian state.
Legislation in Quebec was introduced to prohibit headscarf-wearing women from public employment or accessing public services. Arranged marriages were more closely scrutinized by immigration officials. Restrictions were placed on the use of religious arbitration to settle family matters. Moral panics ensued about polygamist marriages and so-called honour killings.
Most recently, the federal government passed the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. It is aimed at criminalizing marriages that are forced, polygamous or involve minors. The need for such legislation is questionable as such marriages are already prohibited in Canada. And now the Conservatives have announced a tip line to report any “barbaric cultural practices” to an integrated RCMP task force with units in many cities, including Winnipeg.
Yet even as these perceptions ascended, there is little empirical research on Muslim women living in Canada, including research about whether illegal marriages are common. Sarah Mahboob and I recently completed the first part of a research project looking at the experiences of young Muslim women living in Winnipeg. We interviewed people with insider knowledge of this community, mainly older professional Muslim women.
What did we find?
Muslim women are expected to get a good education and to have strong workforce attachments. Other research shows one-half of Muslim women have post-secondary education; nearly one in three has university education, as compared with a figure of one in five for all Canadian adults.
Not surprisingly, both Muslim men and women are pressured, in one way or another, to conform to religious expectations. Most interviewees noted Muslim women are expected to dress modestly but almost all stated the decision whether to cover one’s head or face is, almost without exception, a matter of personal choice. Almost half of those we interviewed noted some women do not wear a hijab, even though it might be their preference to do so, because others make assumptions about the wearer’s personal autonomy or political beliefs.
Marriages proposed by parents are still the norm, although many young Muslims find a partner on their own. The practice of returning to one’s “home country” to find a spouse is now discouraged, especially if the children are Canadian-born, because such relationships often fail or leave partners miserable. Some interviewees acknowledged they knew of one polygamous marriage in Winnipeg, but that such unions were unsanctioned by almost all members of the community. There was no evidence of underage marriages performed either in Winnipeg or elsewhere where the minor was then brought to Winnipeg by an adult spouse.
Our research was not designed to look into how many Muslim girls or women have been abused, or to compare the prevalence of domestic violence in Muslim and non-Muslim families. Almost all of the informants acknowledged some girls and women are abused by their fathers or husbands. None of the interviewees — even though they recognized the shame that any exposure of domestic violence could bring to the community — attempted to minimize violence by suggesting either it does not occur or it was not that serious. However, all the interviewees repudiated any religious or cultural justifications for violence against women. One said, “Anyone who would try to use religion and culture to justify those despicable acts is basically, is absolutely wrong… No prophet has ever come and (said), ‘Go do this and that and you’ll be rewarded.’ “
Most abused women, including Muslim women, respond to domestic violence by telling only those they deeply trust. Our interviewees noted when women do seek help, they often find it is not useful. Effective measures to counter violence include increasing community awareness and ensuring services are culturally appropriate.
In contrast, nothing in the vast literature on how to address violence against women, Muslim or non-Muslim, suggests a tip line to report “barbaric cultural practices” will have any positive effects in the everyday lives of abused women. In fact, an enhanced police response, especially in light of recent changes to Canadian immigration and citizenship law, may have the opposite effect. It threatens to silence abused women even more lest they unwittingly trigger a deportation hearing for a family member.
The Conservative government’s plan for dealing with “barbaric cultural practices” plays on fears about violent Muslim men and subjugated Muslim women. Their plan will not support women or girls; rather it may create new harms for Muslim women, their families and communities.
Karen Busby is a law professor at the University of Manitoba and director of the Centre for Human Rights Research.