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Religious freedom or harem for bad breeding?

 

Daphne Bramham

CanWest News Service


July 20, 2004

 

What in the name of tolerance are we doing in Canada? Most thinking people can't countenance the notion that old men -- so-called religious leaders -- keep harems of women, including teens, for the purpose of breeding a pure stock.

Yet for 50 years, politicians, bureaucrats and law enforcement officials here haven't seen it that way when it comes to the polygamist community of Bountiful in southeastern British Columbia.

For the past two decades, B.C. lawmakers and enforcement agencies have fallen back on the excuse that leaders of Bountiful's Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints cannot be prosecuted for the Criminal Code offence of polygamy because the Canadian Charter of Rights guarantees religious freedom.

In doing so, they've ignored evidence provided by former concubines on religious leaders who have as many as 80 wives, about alleged sexual exploitation of child "brides'' by "husbands'' two and three times their age.

One of the primary reasons most thinking people supported Canada's intervention in Afghanistan was due to outrage over the Taliban's use of Islamic or sharia law to suppress, abuse and subjugate women and girls.

Yet, the Ontario government last fall agreed that sharia could be used to settle marriage, family and business disputes within Muslim communities. That's something that the government of Malaysia has consistently resisted even though Islam is the state religion there.

In our desire to accept different cultures and religions, we are endangering the very freedoms that our constitution was designed to protect.

In our overriding quest for tolerance, we have stopped asking and answering a fundamental question: When does culture stop being culture and start being abuse?

One can only imagine what glee can be had by the Fundementalist Latter Day Saints and Islamic leaders -- exclusively men -- when they can use the national charter to deny equality for women and girls all in the name of freedom. They must especially bask in the irony that it was women's groups who were some of the strongest and most vocal proponents of the charter's inclusion in the constitution in 1982.

Muslim women in Ontario have been ready to note that they didn't come from countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia just to have those systems foisted upon them here.

They chose Canada so they could escape the religious decrees on what they can wear, whom they can befriend, marry or even divorce, and where and how they can travel.

They came here because they sought more possibilities and more choices. They wanted the freedom to choose -- including the freedom to follow Islam or reject it entirely.

Iranian-born Homa Arjomand, who heads the International Campaign to Stop Sharia Courts in Canada, fears that even limited use of sharia would endanger the rights of women and approving its use will encourage other illegal activities.

Arjomand, a counsellor for immigrant women in Toronto, told the Toronto Star that even without sharia, many Muslim women don't dare report being battered by their husbands.

...Continued

Bigamy also often occurs. Among her clients are two 14-year-old girls who were married last year to older men, defying Ontario law which prohibits marriages of anyone under age 16 or which are polygamous, a Criminal Code offense.

And while immigrant women may come here because Canada provides equal rights, it's questionable whether the Canadian-born women and girls of Bountiful are even aware of their charter rights.

Religious leaders control education for them by dictating both schools in Bountiful -- one of which received $460,826 in government grants last year.

The schools reinforce Fundementalist Latter Day Saints teachings. Most astounding among them is that any boy over the age of 12 can belong to the priesthood, which grants them control over the most basic decisions over women and girls -- such as what they wear, who they can marry and what they should do with their lives.

Even though all B.C. students are given the chance to hold different jobs by taking part in the mandatory career and personal planning program, that doesn't happen at Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School.

In 2002, education ministry inspectors reported that Bountiful's girls were only allowed to "prepare, cater and clean up after a meal'' and engage in "sewing and other types of handiwork or needlework.''

Despite that appalling find, the ministry continues to fund the school under its Independent Schools Act.

If we needed an outside perspective on Bountiful and what's being allowed to happen there, we finally got one this week in the Economist magazine.

"They like to think they do a good job protecting women's rights and fighting pedophilia. Canadians would not be so smug if they knew of the dirty little secret in the Creston Valley, in southeastern British Columbia,'' it says.

"For half a century, a hotbed of polygamy has quietly flourished there in a commune called Bountiful.''

Canada's charter was never drafted to protect the rights of autocratic religious leaders or to deny equality and freedom to others. It's time that our political leaders recognize that and act accordingly.

 

 

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