No MMDA reforms possible without Muslim women

On July 18th 2018, the report of the 2009 Committee considering reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of 1951, was finally released on the website of the Ministry of Justice and public comments called for. It was understood that dissenting opinions between Committee members on some of the key issues was the main delay. MPLRAG is concerned about the lack of clarity regarding the process moving forward, particularly given most recent events.

On July 19th 2018, a meeting between Muslim MP’s and the Chairperson of the Committee, Justice Saleem Marsoof, was held in Parliament. The Minister of Justice and representatives at the Ministry were notably absent. Tamil media reported on July 20th, that it was decided that there will be another meeting in Parliament on 24th July at which, ‘the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), Muslim MPs and Ministers as well as representative from Ministry of Justice and Muslim organisations will participate.’

Will Muslim men be allowed to barter the rights of Muslim women without their presence? 

It is unclear whether Muslim women’s groups, especially those who have been directly affected by the MMDA and those who have been advocating for reforms are invited to this meeting. Todate we are not aware of any woman or women’s group being invited. What is clear is that ACJU will be present. The same organization that has made highly regressive recommendations is being given yet another hearing. Meeting after meeting is held to placate ACJU and to ensure that its voice is heard.

But where is the forum for the many voices of Muslim women in the reform process? When will women be able to register their views against regressive reform recommendations being made? Why are Muslim Members of Parliament (MP’s), elected by votes of men and women, not giving Muslim women a seat at the table?

After the release of this report and despite a call for public comments, it seems we are already seeing Muslim men hijack the process and decide on what rights Muslim women should and should not have in Sri Lanka.

Muslim MPs – Stop excluding women!

We remind the State and especially Muslim MP’s that the two decade reform saga is primarily about addressing the discriminations and injustices faced by Muslim women and girls in Sri Lanka. Any attempt to reform will fail it’s purpose, if provisions and procedures which currently discriminate against Muslim women and girls are not addressed.

We, Muslim women are citizens of Sri Lanka. It cannot be emphasized enough that the only MMDA reforms that is acceptable is one in which is centered around contemporary lived realities of Muslim women and girls. The process therefore must engage Muslim women at every step from discussions, debate, drafting, implementation and beyond.

If Sri Lankan Muslims believe that we are equal citizens of Sri Lanka, then this principle of equality must also transcend into the laws and practices that govern our own communities and families.

The debate centers on interpretations of Shari’ah

In our understanding Shari’ah principles of justice, fairness and dignity confirm that marriage between two human beings must based on ‘Mawaddah Warahmah’ – love, compassion and mutual understanding. The diversity of Islamic jurisprudence and tools used in Islamic legal tradition, such as ‘maslahah’ – to ensure public interest, ‘la dharar’ to ensure that laws and practices cause no harm – are among many tools of Islam legal jurisprudence which can be used to determine the most fair and just laws.

In a Committee which has put forward two sets of recommendations, both based on principles of Shari’ah, it is clear that it depends on human interpretation. If justice and fairness are guiding this debate as prescribed by Shari’ah, and as Muslim women demand, then the interpretation that achieves justice and fairness must prevail. For Muslim women, the positive recommendations by the Chairperson, and eight others should form the starting point for consultations. We seek further improvements on these and not dilutions based on patriarchal ideologies.

Therefore any further compromise on positive recommendations is not possible without it adversely impacting women. Only improvements that address the lived realities of women and deliver justice and fairness must be considered at this stage.

Minister of Justice, Ensure a fair, constitutionally compliant and delay-free process

This reform process must be led by the Ministry of Justice. It is a matter of equality of citizens. There is need for a definite timeline and clarity of process for the enactment of amendments to MMDA in the Parliament. Women’s experience must be at the center of the process. Sri Lanka has a unique opportunity to set an example of instituting an egalitarian family law that protects and promotes the rights of Muslim women and men in marriage and family.

But without the leadership of the Ministry, a fair process and a timeframe, the reform exercise is bound to be determined by a group of men with a very conservative interpretation of Islam, which will further marginalize Muslim communities in Sri Lanka.