COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Zeenathul Razeena Ismail, 37, was 16 years old when she was married.
It was not a forced marriage. Ismail fell in love with her seaman husband when she first met him, but the marriage was arranged by the two families.
“My father signed the marriage register as required by the Muslim law,” Ismail says.
Ismail says her in-laws weren’t supportive of education, so she dropped out of school after the wedding. She was 17 years old when her son was born. Now, she also has two daughters.
Within a few years, Ismail says she saw that her husband was a spendthrift and a womanizer. Her family turned her out of their house because her husband’s behavior brought them shame, and she moved to Colombo to live with her in-laws.
“When his absence from home became longer, on enquiry I found that he had got married to another woman and was living away from us,” Ismail says.
Under Sri Lanka’s Muslim law, polygamy is allowed, but women who no longer live with their husbands aren’t guaranteed any type of support.
But Ismail says her husband did not provide for her or the children. He visited sporadically, and sent money infrequently. Ismail says she supported her children by making food parcels to sell in shops and working as a maid.
Ismail has not filed for divorce, and says she is unlikely to ever do so. She believes the law which governs the Muslim community in Sri Lanka would favor her husband.
“I’m scared that I may lose custody of my children,” she says. “We are uneducated and don’t know much about the Muslim law.”
As a Muslim, Ismail is obligated to live within the codes of Sri Lanka’s Muslim law. Since she was married under Muslim law, she must also divorce under Muslim law.
A Muslim Personal Law Reforms Committee set up by the government in 2009 is finalizing recommendations to changes to that law with respect to women, and women’s activists are pressuring that committee to complete those recommendations this year, as Sri Lankan leaders are drafting a new constitution.
The recommendations being discussed include giving Muslim brides the right to sign the marriage register, setting a minimum marriageable age, equal access to divorce and the right to maintenance, and the introduction of female judges in the Quazi courts, which implement Muslim law, according to activists familiar with the proposals.