The Muslim women in Sri Lanka have persisted with the struggle to reform MMDA for over three decades. This is despite the repeated and abject failure of the male dominated religious and political leadership within the community to address these grievances that are having serious adverse impact on the everyday lives of women and girls. This is also due to the State turning a blind eye to the Muslim women being treated as second-class citizens.
In February 2018, after nine years of prolonged deliberations, the 2009 Committee to ‘suggest amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA)’ appointed by Justice Ministry released its report. The Committee made positive recommendations with respect to some aspects of the current law. However, it falls short on other recommendations which fail to address the longstanding concerns of Muslim women on the ground.
We are reliably aware that the set of recommendations suggested by Justice Saleem Marsoof et.al, were already ‘watered down’ positions. For instance, their report recommends raising the minimum age to 18 years but with exceptions. The absolute minimum age recommended is only 16 years. In fact the key arguments given in favor of raising the age could easily be used to justify raising it up to 18 years and making it in par with the rights enjoyed by others in the country.
We also know that many of these compromises by the Chairperson et.al, were intended initially for the Committee to reach consensus in the face of dogged opposition to reforms from the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) who carried out a concerted campaign against much needed reforms. Despite these compromises, ultimately some Committee members including the ACJU and Faisz Musthapha PC came up with a second set of unreasonable and farcical recommendations which served to stymie the reform process. This division served as a convenient excuse for the Justice Minister to indefinitely delay responding to the concerns of Muslim women, yet again.
It is undeniable that Muslim women have been the most affected by discriminatory provisions, procedures and practices of the MMDA, and the Quazi court system, since its enactment in 1951. Certain provisions of the MMDA blatantly violate the fundamental rights of Muslim women and children as citizens of Sri Lanka.
We reemphasize that the main objective of MMDA reform is improving the lives of Muslim women and ending the many grievances faced by them. Therefore, the recommendations suggested by the Committee, must be taken as a starting point and not as the only options for reform.
A continued reminder of Muslim women’s struggles
MPLRAG, along with many Muslim women’s groups in the country, has for the past three years been advocating for very specific reforms to the MMDA. This builds on over 30 years of struggle by Muslim women for a change in personal laws. All our demands have been formulated following grounded research and an understanding of the issues faced by Muslim women across Sri Lanka.
We have also studied and based our reform demands on the principles of Shari’ah and comparative Muslim family laws around the world. We know that there is enough evidence and tools from within the diverse and vibrant Islamic legal tradition and jurisprudence to justify comprehensive reforms to the MMDA and the Quazi court system. We have articulated them clearly in our research and presentations and have also shown that there are other countries, including Muslim majority countries, in the world that have adopted such measures.
We strongly believe that Shari’ah principles which promote justice and equality, are in full compliance with human rights principles in this regard, and that a Muslim family law that meets human rights standards, is possible and necessary.
We urge that the reform exercise should progress based on a framework that (i) takes the lived realities of Muslim women and girls as the primary consideration, (ii) uses evidence and tools from Islamic jurisprudence, and (iii) is in line with human rights principles and constitutionally guaranteed right to equality for all as Sri Lankans.
Every area of discrimination must be addressed
We reiterate that any compromised and/or ‘piecemeal’ measures or forced consensus which do not address the real life concerns of Muslim women and girls and continues to violate their rights is unacceptable at this juncture.
The reform exercise must remain true to its principal constituency – Muslim women and girls. We will work to ensure that the reform conversation is not hijacked by those forces who are not interested in the wellbeing of the community nor leave it to be held in continuous hostage by anti-reform forces within the community.
If the current reform initiatives do not assure solutions for Muslim women’s concerns and guarantee full enjoyment of rights as equals within MMDA, we will be compelled to consider the General Marriage Registration Ordinance (GMRO) as a better option in ensuring justice for Muslim women and girls.
We, therefore, reiterate that the only amendments to the MMDA that are acceptable, in both the short and long terms, are the amendments to all discriminatory provisions and procedures.
Any and all reform must guarantee full equality for women and men in marriage and divorce matters, and ensure fair and equal access to justice to Muslim communities in Sri Lanka.
To this end, our key demands are as follows: