STATEMENT: Sri Lankan Muslim women – In Limbo between Reform and Repeal of the MMDA

A historic opportunity for reforming the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of Sri Lanka (MMDA) has presented itself. Once again, it is mired in counter-productive politics. 

MPLRAG condemns the calls for repeal of the MMDA which exploits the lived realities of Muslim women to incite hatred and remove legitimate rights of Sri Lankan Muslims. MPLRAG also strongly condemns Muslim male leaders who continue to impede reform to the MMDA by actively lobbying against reforms, ignoring the challenges Muslim women in Sri Lanka face, leaving Muslim women out of decision-making processes and providing ample fodder for racist calls for repeals which will have drastic impacts on Sri Lankan Muslim communities. 

MMDA and the pandemic

Muslim women and girls in Sri Lanka have endured numerous hardships due to COVID-19, which has heightened existing difficulties of violence and control of their personal and family lives. Access to the Quazi system was restricted and many had no recourse to relief in family-related issues as the MMDA continued to fail them during this time. 

For close to a year, Muslim women of Sri Lanka have also been shouldering the emotional and physical toll of a cruel state policy to cremate the bodies of persons found or suspected to have COVID-19 without due regard and respect of their religious beliefs.

Muslim women have been protectors of their families and communities while continuing to advocate for justice and equality in a country that treats them as second-class citizens. MPLRAG bears witness to the crushing toll this takes on Sri Lankan Muslim women. It also bears witness to their resilience, commitment and courage during these times.

Between an Opportunity for Reform and the Repeal of the MMDA

Working on family law issues in the context of aggressive politics within and outside the community has been an incredible challenge for Muslim women who have been advocating for this change for over 30 years. The Minister of Justice Ali Sabry has  categorically assured the country that reforms will take place. Calls for the repeal of the MMDA from racist voices are growing. From within the community, it is deeply disheartening to see Muslim male leaders mobilizing and cutting deals to push back on comprehensive reform. These Muslim male leaders have continued to exclude Muslim women from crucial decision-making processes and unfairly blaming them for the calls for repeal.

There is no doubt that male Muslim leaders have been the main barrier to MMDA reforms for the past 30 years. Their failure to address the issues within the MMDA has fueled racist calls for repeal. If the MMDA is repealed it will be because Muslim male leaders in Sri Lanka valued their conservative views over the lived experience of Muslim women and girls, and not for any other reason. 

Way Forward: Comprehensive Reforms of the MMDA

At this unprecedented time, Muslim women are compelled to battle two obstacles. One is the conservative Muslim male community leaders who stubbornly refuse to comprehensively reform an unequal Muslim family law. The other is the intolerant and insincere call for the repeal of the MMDA from racists who are exploiting the lived realities of Muslim women to incite hatred and remove legitimate rights of all Sri Lankan Muslim communities.

The only way forward is a comprehensive reform of the MMDA which is compliant with Article 12 of the Sri Lankan Constitution. The right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of religion, race, language etc must extend to Muslim women and girls. It is this fundamental right, our Constitution, that is the one law for all citizens. 

All Sri Lankans, communities and political leaders, who celebrate the plural identity of this country and understand the value of fundamental freedoms for all, must, at this historic moment, ensure  comprehensive reform to the MMDA is delivered.

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