JOINT STATEMENT BY: Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group (MPLRAG) and Hashtag Generation.
The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (1951) of Sri Lanka contains multiple provisions that discriminate against women. One serious discriminatory statement includes explicitly stating that only males can hold the positions of judges in Quazi courts, marriage registrars, jurors and Board of Quazi members. Muslim women and girls are the primary victims of failure on the part of Sri Lankan lawmakers to ensure comprehensive reform of an archaic and deeply problematic law and court system. Women have also been at the forefront of agitating for reform of the MMDA for over 30 years.
The aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks witnessed a sudden spike in concern and debate over matters pertaining to the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. The MMDA was among the topics that were brought under public scrutiny where calls for repeal of the MMDA were raised by various factions with varying interests. In July 2019, Muslim MPs decided on a set of amendments to the MMDA. In August 2019, the Cabinet approved the proposal to amend the MMDA without properly understanding the nature and extent of reforms being proposed.
MMDA reforms are long overdue. Given the current political context, the urgency behind politicians’ decisions to submit a proposal for reform to Parliament is predictable. However, while women’s groups were partly relieved to note that calls for reform were finally being heard, it was deeply disappointing that the proposed amendments fell short of addressing the most pressing concerns. We are also very concerned that the approach to reform has since been narrow, arbitrary, and ill conceived.
The problem lies in the fact that the proposal that was finally submitted by Cabinet failed to include crucial reforms that many groups have been calling for, especially: to allow for the appointment of women as Quazi court judges.
This issue has been widely debated in recent years. Certain conservative groups, and individuals who support them including prominent lawyers, are of the opinion that women should not be allowed to hold positions of leadership and authority because they are the ‘weaker sex’. This is due to narrow and highly patriarchal interpretations of Islamic law. There is ample evidence from Islamic legal tradition that the appointment of women as judges or Quazis does not contradict Islamic teachings based on equality and justice. In fact countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Pakistan and Yemen have all amended their laws and reformed their court systems to allow women as judges in Shari’ah and family courts.
Article 12(2) of the Sri Lankan Constitution states that: ‘No citizen shall be discriminated against on grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one such grounds’. Restricting the position of Quazi judge to only males violates fundamental rights of women.
The legal barrier for women to be judges in Quazi courts is an urgent matter of concern for Sri Lanka, as the position of a Quazi judge is a state-funded, state-appointed judicial position under the Ministry of Justice and the Quazi court system is funded by Sri Lankan taxpayers. It is the only ‘official’ judicial position that discriminates on the basis of sex.
Muslim women’s groups have cautioned against piecemeal reform which addresses only a few issues; this would render the purpose of reform ineffective and futile as Muslim women will continue to suffer at the hands of a repressive system.
Our ask today is for all Presidential hopefuls to understand, appreciate and support the demands of Muslim women and for our future President to without delay prioritise meaningful MMDA reforms within the life of this Parliament. We ask that he or she heeds women’s voices on the most urgent amendments including, but not limited to:
- Women as Quazi judges, marriage registrars, jurors & Board of Quazi members
- Raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years WITHOUT any exceptions
- Allowing women to enter into marriage with the same autonomy as men
- Granting women equal divorce process and procedures
- Improving the standard of the Quazi court system, among other important amendments.
We urge political parties, presidential candidates and all leaders to Include MMDA reforms as a women’s rights concern, a fundamental rights issue and a national issue of priority.
In the meantime we also urge everyone working on election campaigns, and civil society organisations and activists, youth and media to raise questions pertaining to MMDA reform where ever the opportunity arises and especially advocate that leaders and the government must give urgency to the demands of Muslim women. If equality for all citizens is to be realized, then it is our collective responsibility to keep substantive issues and lived realities at the heart of political change.
This statement was released following a media and stakeholder briefing held on Nov 6th 2019 on the topic – ‘Sri Lankan Quazi Courts – Where are the women judges?’. The briefing was organised by MPLRAG and Hashtag Generation. Video of the press briefing can be accessed via this link.