Canada: Court case won't just look at Mormon polygamists; Muslims under scrunity too

Winnipeg Free Press

A court case to determine whether Canada's polygamy laws violate religious protection might have been sparked by a fundamentalist Mormon sect in southeastern British Columbia, but the legal challenge will also examine rarely discussed polygamous practices among North America's Muslims. The B.C. government asked the province's Supreme Court last year to decide if the section of the Criminal Code prohibiting polygamy also contravenes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

The province launched the constitutional question after polygamy charges were dropped against two Bountiful, B.C., religious leaders.

A formal start date for the hearings has not yet been determined, but several affidavits for the case have been sworn in recent weeks.

One of them is from Mohammad Fadel, Canada research chair in Islamic law at the University of Toronto. Fadel was asked by the B.C. attorney general to address the relationship between polygamy and Islam.

He said as a matter of religious doctrine, the marriage of a Muslim man to up to four wives is disfavoured, but not morally forbidden.

"This conclusion is based on texts of the Qur'an that appear to allow a man to marry more than one wife simultaneously," he said in the affidavit.

Fadel said polygamy is generally taboo among Muslims in Canada, both because it's illegal and sometimes viewed as shameful.

But Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, said in her affidavit she occasionally receives telephone calls from women that pertain to polygamy.

She said some of the Muslim women have refused to leave their "oppressive marital relationships" because they fear social stigma from other members of the community.

Hogben said some women have been warned that if they shame their husbands in any way, the Qur'an states the man may take disciplinary action, including causing bodily harm.

"Based on what I have learned through my experience as a social worker and front-line contact for Muslim women in crisis, and through my education as a Muslim, I believe that some men employ the authority of Islam to marry (polygamously) in order to suit their own sexual preferences," she said.

Hogben added not very much is known about the practice or incidents of multiple wives in Canada's Muslim communities.

Dena Hassouneh, a nurse practitioner and professor at the Oregon Health and Sciences University School of Nursing, was asked by the province to address the emotional, psychological and social impacts of polygamous relationships, compared to monogamous relationships.

Hassouneh, who like Hogben is Muslim herself, has published a paper titled, "Polygamy and Wife Abuse: A Qualitative Study of Muslim Women in America."

She studied 17 women in polygamous marriages and found they had greater frequency and severity of a variety of psychiatric symptoms, decreased marital satisfaction, and lower self-esteem.

"My work with women in the community indicates that the practice, more often than not, is a harmful one," she said in her affidavit. "Patriarchal family structures lend themselves to abuse of power regardless of whether they are monogamous or polygamous."

Hassouneh said it can be difficult for women to ever come forward and disclose their problems.

Hassouneh's findings were supported by Dr. Susan Stickevers, who practices in New York.

Stickevers treated 18 Muslim women who were in polygamous relationships between 1990 and 1999.

She said in her affidavit 17 of those women had higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Several other affidavits have been filed in the case by those who lived in polygamous communities, special interest groups, and scholars, among others.

Lawyers appeared in court this week to sort out scheduling details. They'll be back before the judge next month.

The provincial government has said the constitutionality of the Criminal Code section that prohibits polygamy is of interest beyond Bountiful. It has said the practice of polygamy is accepted in other cultures, some of which have substantial and growing immigrant populations in Canada.

"The (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and these communities are perfect examples about what we're trying to prove (that polygamy is harmful)," government lawyer Craig Jones said in March.

"I still expect the majority of evidence to be outside Bountiful."

Residents of Bountiful are members of the FLDS, a breakaway group from the mainstream Mormon church. The Mormon church renounced polygamy more than a century ago.

By: Sunny Dhillon, The Canadian Press

25/08/2010 3:30 PM