Sharia divorce: Vancouver Sun dives into what Muslim immigrants are really talking about

It’s really a shame that The Vancouver (BC) Sun hides its religion coverage under the proverbial bushel. Under 10 portals, the newspaper has dozens of drop-downs for all manner of specialties, such as “wine country” under the “life” portal.

I see nothing to help readers find religion news. I even checked under “staff blogs” under the “news” portal, but could not find Doug Todd, the staff writer who covers religion along with migration and diversity.

Folks south of the border appreciate his insight into the religion of “Cascadia,” the area of North America that covers coastal Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. A Seattle blog,, did a very good interview with him recently about spirituality in this region. 

 Fortunately, I know I can always locate Doug Todd’s columns here and that’s where I found his fascinating take on how divorce under sharia law fares in a western country.

The answer: Not so well. This passage is long, but essential.

“In the event of a separation, the defendant agrees to deliver to the plaintiff the following: I. One volume of the Holy Qur’an; II. One crystal sugar stick; III. One basket of narcissus flowers; IV. 3,000 gold coins.”
                — Delvarani v. Delvarani, B.C. Supreme Court
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.”
One B.C. Supreme Court divorce case hinged on an estimated $750,000 in gold coins minted by the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Estranged couples can be devastated when they discover the religious laws of their homelands don’t apply in Canada.

The article goes on to describe how sharia property law might hold water back in Iran, Pakistan, etc., but it has no standing in the West.

At issue is the dowry, which the woman is supposed to get back from the husband if the marriage fails. Back in the old country, the gold coins that the bride’s family paid the groom –- which range in value from $30,000 to $75,000 –- don’t really transfer in the Canadian economy. The groom ends out winning, as Canadian judges don’t make them pay back anywhere near the value of the coins.

Under sharia law, the husband can deny his wife a divorce. But in Canada, the woman can go ahead and get a divorce anyway. Sharia law also favors the man when it comes to the custody of children; that is, the wife has custody until the child is 7, at which point the husband gets custody. The mother definitely loses custody if she remarries. If either partner belongs to a religion other than Islam, they also lose custody. Read here for particulars but Canadian law doesn’t follow such rules.

As the piece concludes:

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.

I wish more folks other than the lawyer had been interviewed, as I’m curious as to why an immigrant Muslim couple would think that sharia law holds water in Canada. We know that western law carries no weight in many Muslim countries overseas. The 1991 film "Not Without My Daughter" tells such a story of an American woman married to a Muslim who lost all custodial rights to their daughter once they traveled to Iran to visit his relatives.

(The woman ended up sneaking herself and the daughter over the border into Turkey but other non-Muslim women in Islamic countries haven't been so lucky. The daughter in "Not Without My Daughter" is now 36 and just came out with a book about her ordeal only a few months ago.)

In an earlier piece, Todd said no official sharia courts exist in North America, unlike the UK, where there's 85 such institutions. Canada’s largest source country for Muslim immigrants is Pakistan where sharia law is very much in effect and where people believe in honor killings and in the death penalty for those who convert out of Islam. “That, to put it mildly, is not good news,” he wrote.

No kidding.

Todd has covered other Muslims vs. Canadian culture topics such as this piece about an immigrant fighting for the right to wear a niqab and more.

Very few religion reporters have the contacts he has. Other than articles about laws in seven U.S. states banning sharia, I’ve not seen much written south of the border about the kind of things Todd writes about. I found one RNS piece about divorce and sharia law. Since one-third of Muslim marriages in the United States end in divorce, this is definitely something Muslims are discussing around the dinner table. That article came to the same conclusion as did Doug Todd’s piece: Any bride or groom counting on sharia to guard their assets in case of a divorce will have a rude awakening.

Following sharia-observant folks in the non-sharia West is a specialty topic for a specialty beat and I’m grateful Todd’s keeping his ear to the ground on this one. What's happening in U.S. areas rich with Muslim immigrants such as New York, southern California and Houston? One lengthy 2013 piece in the Arab American News shows what's going on in Detroit among Muslim immigrants. 

There are some huge stories out there. I'm hoping more reporters can cover them. 

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