Islam, martial arts and human rights in Nova Scotia

Earlier this week the admirable (and indefatigable) Donlu Thayer, of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, drew our attention to a slightly strange story in the Welland Tribune, published in the small Canadian town of Welland, Ontario, in south Niagara: “Halifax human rights court says dojo must accommodate Muslim man’s beliefs“. The reporter, Grant LaFleche, himself a former student of kendo (Japanese fencing), wrote up the story as follows:

“It’s a case in Halifax .., where the local human rights court decided an aikido dojo — a gym where the martial art of aikido is practised — must bend to the beliefs of a single Muslim man. So female aikidoka (aikido students) were separated from the men so buddy doesn’t have to touch them. He also refused to bow to other students, His religion prohibited all of it, he said. The aikido sensei (the teacher) should have told this guy that if his religion forbade him from following the rules of the dojo, he could go someplace else. Instead, he bent over backward to accommodate this man’s sexist faith thinking… One of the students, a teenaged girl, felt the female aikidoka were being discriminated against and took the case to the human rights court. She lost”.

He concludes:

“The human rights court in Halifax has made a grievous error. It did not prevent discrimination of religious minority, but ruled in favour of a form of misogyny. It stole from the dojo its essential identity and gave priority to a fundamentalist version of Islam not representative of the faith held by millions of Canadians. It’s a travesty, any way you look at it”.

Intrigued, I did a little digging (well, googling) and unearthed an article by Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University “Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission reportedly supports martial arts school bar on female contact with Muslim man” which treats the story from a more overtly-legal point of view.

Almost inevitably, the piece in the Welland Tribune was something of an oversimplification. The complainer, Sonja Power, challenged the decision of Halifax’s East Coast Yoshinkan Aikido to accommodate the man’s religious preferences but it is not clear where she presented her challenge. Professor Turley says that the aikido teacher

“… says that his decision was supported by both the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and the Halifax Recreation Administration [which operated the premises in which the classes were held]. He says that Canadian officials told him that segregating the class was ‘prudent, lawful and correct’.”

But that doesn’t sound as if it was a decision by a court at all: rather, it looks like an attempt by the aikido teacher to come to some kind of reasonable accommodation with the Muslim man. It was that attempt which appears to have been supported by the Human Rights Commission – which is not quite the same thing as a formal ruling, whether by a court or by the Commission. The National Post reported that Lisa Teryl, a lawyer for the Human Rights Commission, was unable to comment on the aikido case specifically but acknowledged the general problem of competing rights:

“In the fabric of Canadian society, [gender segregation] isn’t something that, in a secular sense, we support … we generally see it as a bad thing”.

She pointed out,  however, that at the same time the law required reasonable accommodation of religious views; and they were generally given much higher consideration than matters of mere personal preference:

Comment: What the story does do is to raise once more the question, how “reasonable” does “reasonable accommodation” have to be? (It also has faint echoes of the recent dispute about sex-segregation at certain events in UK universities.) Grant LaFleche makes the entirely valid point that, for students of kendo

“… the rules and rituals of the dojo were not arbitrary but essential to the training experience. We all dressed the same. We bowed to each other. Gender made no difference, we were all there to learn. Training, focus and respect were the central ideas of the dojo”.

And the same applies to other martial arts – judo, aikido, karate, whatever; moreover, they have strong traditional links with Zen Buddhism. So what might have happened had Ms Power argued that, in rejecting the traditions of the dojo – for example, by refusing to bow – the Muslim man was showing disrespect to her own deeply-held beliefs? Or perhaps she did in fact do that – but we cannot know for certain because the reports are anecdotal.

And what about gender equality? S 15(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Part I of the Constitution Act 1982 guarantees the equal protection and equal benefit of the law “without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability”, while s 28 guarantees those rights “equally to male and female persons”. So how does one balance the right of female aikidoka to equal treatment against the right of a devout Muslim to practise aikido while avoiding physical contact with females? Ms Teryl suggests that

“If it doesn’t cost us to the point of undue hardship, then we need to try to … support [people of faith] and not have them feel persecuted for their deeply-held belief”.

But at precisely what point does one reach a situation of “undue hardship”?

Yet another knotty problem of the kind which makes the study of law and religion so interesting and, at the same time, so frustrating. And underlying it all there must surely be (or perhaps should surely be) at least some element of, “if you don’t like the rules, why join the club?”. If anyone could supply further and better particulars I would be fascinated to know more about the case.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Islam, martial arts and human rights in Nova Scotia" in Law & Religion UK, 22 January 2014,

One thought on “Islam, martial arts and human rights in Nova Scotia

  1. I find this deeply worrying – both as a female and a martial arts student. Any kind of segregation of this kind gives credence to the view that one gender is somehow ‘better’ than the other. However, in a martial arts setting there are other considerations.

    I am lucky enough to be the only female in my karate class, which means that it’s impossible to segregate me – but it’s still taken me several years to get to the point where I am treated as a normal human being and not a fragile little girl. If I wasn’t allowed to train with the men (had there been any other women) I would probably not have been able to do that.

    Additionally, many women take up a martial art to allow them to feel confident on their own on the streets. Most attackers are male, so it’s of vital importance to train against men – who are bigger and stronger than the average woman – both to avoid the dangerous overconfidence that comes from being able to win against an equal or smaller opponent without ever experiencing training against someone with significant size/strength advantages, and the simple experience of training with a man and dealing with close physical contact that is not sexual. Women who are segregated and only allowed to train against other women are denied this experience. Men, too, can benefit from the experience of training with a woman – especially if that woman is an expert, as they then learn that size and strength are not everything.

    In segregating the class, therefore, the major issue was not simply one of ‘hurt feelings’, but of a real disadvantage in training to all members of the class, particularly the women. In this case, religious belief has been given priority over not only gender equality but also the entire purpose of the class, resulting in a poorer learning experience for all.

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