Privatizing Diversity: A Cautionary Tale from Religious Arbitration in Family Law

Ayelet Shachar


Demands to accommodate religious diversity in the public sphere have recently intensified. The debates surrounding the Islamic headscarf (hijab) in Europe vividly illustrate this trend. We also find a new challenge on the horizon: namely, the request to "privatize diversity" through alternative dispute resolution processes that permit parties to move their disputes from public courthouses into the domain of religious or customary sources of law and authority. The recent controversies in Canada and England related to the so-called Shari’a tribunals demonstrate the potential force of the storm to come. In this Article, I offer an alternative to the presently popular vision of private diversity. This alternative is based on a deep commitment to women’s identity and membership interests as well as their dignity and equality. Women’s legal dilemmas often arise (at least in the family arena) from their allegiance to various overlapping systems of identification, authority and belief: in this case, those arising from religious and secular law. I argue that only recognition of women’s multiple affiliations, and the subtle interactions among them, can help resolve these dilemmas. The recognition of multiple legal affiliations does not sit well with the traditional view that a clear line can be drawn between public and private, official and unofficial, secular and religious, or positive law and traditional practice. Instead, to recognize multiple affiliations is to require greater access to, and coordination among, these once competing sources of law and identity. Once we conceive of citizenship more richly, it becomes apparent that individuals and families should not be forced to choose between the rights of citizenship and group membership: instead, they should be afforded the opportunity to express their commitment to both. I offer a vision of how such an alternative might be realized.

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