Divorce, Shariah and gold coins

March 1, 2016

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

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.”

Estranged couples can be devastated when they discover the religious laws of their homelands don’t apply in Canada.

“My heart often breaks for the suffering couple,” Jenab said. “But the driving issue is Shariah property law.”

As trans-national divorce increasingly falls under the scrutiny of Canadian judges, the decisions they’re making about what Shariah says about the distribution of property are “all over the map,” Jenab said.

Unfortunately, an expert witness on Shariah has not emerged to guide Canada’s courts.

The focus of many trans-national divorces in Canada is the often-considerable dowry, sometimes known as a mahr or meher, which is customary in most countries containing the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

“The dowry is financial security for the female. It is the man’s promise to provide finances, often in gold. It can be claimed by her at any time.”

When discord tears apart the bonds of matrimony, as it often does in all cultures, conflicts over often-unwritten promises about dowries can become intense.

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