Photo by Aamina Nizar

Thanks largely to conservative Muslim clergy and the failure of successive governments to uphold the rights of its people, the reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) has become a public circus. For months now, and much to the embarrassment of Muslims, this issue has been debated in the public realm making a mockery of both Islam and human rights. This has to end now and doing so is largely in the hands of this government.

The reform of the MMDA, which amongst other things enables polygamy and marriage to child brides, is not strictly a religious issue. The debates around the reform are more about patriarchal politics  than Islam. Those fighting to keep this law, primarily the All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulemma (ACJU), or the leading body of theologians, are not defending Islam so much as an archaic male interpretation of Islam. I do not wish to get into the theological arguments on underage marriage and polygamy as these have already been expertly made by a number of Muslim feminists in Sri Lanka and overseas and are popularly available to read on internet sites. There are two points I want to make on the Muslim religious leadership’s position on this issue: first to challenge their role vs. their mandate and second to question their credibility.

Let me start with the first. The ACJU, according to its website, primarily describes its role as to provide spiritual guidance to Muslims. It does not explicitly state how it provides this spiritual guidance but it appears to be done through mosque sermons, publicity campaigns and Fatwas. While Islam arguably encompasses all aspects of life, meaning marriage and divorce have spiritual elements, strictly speaking MMDA is not a purely spiritual matter. The ACJU does not describe itself as being the sole body to uphold, promote and protect Islamic law, though in practice they act as if they are. Islamic law is not limited to MMDA, it is wide-ranging and has many aspects, including political and economic ones. Considering the entire gamut of Islamic laws that the ACJU can adjudicate on, promote and protect, and the vast array of issues of spiritual guidance they can impart; their leading role in protecting the MMDA is striking.

When Buddhist nationalist extremists campaigned and challenged halal certification (deeming certain goods and services as permissible to Muslims), the ACJU compromised and enabled the process to be taken out of their control. This was a straight forward Islamic law issue, but one the ACJU thought could be compromised to promote inter-ethnic harmony, though really was cowing down to Buddhist extremists. Yet, the esteemed religious body can’t seem to shift from their position on MMDA which is a bane to at least half of their own community. In other words, Islamic law can be compromised for extremists but not for women.

This is a defence of patriarchy over spirituality and one that happens in all religions. The ACJU, like many other conservative religious scholars want to maintain their dominant status, particularly over women, and they use Islam to do this. There are now plenty of progressive interpretations of Islam that encourage women’s liberation and emancipation, but the Muslim male religious elite refuses to accept and recognise them and instead controls religious systems and structures to ensure that these progressive interpretations remain side-lined.

If the ACJU is meant to act in the interest of Muslims then it can’t choose to undermine Muslim women who comprise at least 50 percent of their religious group. There is authoritative and substantial research showing how the rights of Muslim women have been violated by the MMDA. Child brides have given testimonies on how their lives have been ruined through early marriage, hundreds of single mothers have related how they have struggled to meet ends meet after their husbands abandoned them to take other wives. There is plenty of evidence to show that women have suffered from this law and there is no doubt that a large majority of women want it to change. Muslim women activists from all over the country have publicly spoken against the MMDA and called for reform, for which many have been criticised. These activists have been working at the grassroots on community issues for decades, long before the likes of ACJU took them up and they are now being attacked, with little or no defence from Muslim male political and civil society leaders.

This is not just a campaign run by feminists and human rights activists, hundreds are now on board. In safe online spaces dozens of Muslim women are writing every day calling for this law to change (note, importantly not to be abolished). The MMDA reform issue has probably generated the largest level of activism amongst Muslim women ever seen and yet we are being ignored. How can the ACJU claim to be working for Muslims and ignore so many of their constituents?

On their website the ACJU describe themselves as staying away from politics, but their vocal positions on the MMDA and the influence they exert on Muslim lawyers, politicians and activists against reform is political. Despite their claims to the contrary, the ACJU has been political for a very long time. In 2012, when the first UN Human Rights Council Resolution was being drafted against Sri Lanka, ACJU representatives were part of the then Sri Lankan government delegation which went to Geneva to advocate on behalf of the Rajapakshe regime. They claimed that the then government was good to Muslims, thereby undermining rights violations of Muslims, and opposed a UN HRC resolution against Sri Lanka. After a public presentation I made on the sidelines of the council drawing attention to, amongst other things, Muslim rights issues at the time, including the failure to return and resettle northern Muslims and resolve land claims of eastern Muslims, the ACJU representatives approached me and urged me not to be critical of the then government. By 2013, as Muslims came under attack from Buddhist nationalist groups who were operating with state sponsorship, the position of Muslim politicians, religious leaders and civil society dramatically changed and they started turning to the international community for help. The advocacy the ACJU did in Geneva in 2012 eventually backfired against Muslims. If this is not politics what is?

The last part of this article is addressed to the law makers and the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) who, under international law, are responsible for the rights of its citizens. There is no valid reason for the GoSL to keep this repressive law that is clearly in violation of women’s rights and their own commitments to international laws on women’s rights. At least seven Muslim majority countries have fixed a minimum age of marriage at 16 and around the same allow for women judges, amongst other things to adjudicate on divorce proceeding. If precedence exists in Muslim majority states, what grounds are there for Muslim women in Sri Lanka to continue being penalised by this Act?

If the current government is committed to the protection of human rights of its citizens, then they must commit to the reform of the MMDA.  As someone who has worked on minority rights for a decade and has fought at the international level for the rights of Sri Lanka’s minorities, including Muslims, I would argue that this can’t be framed as a minority rights or freedom of religion issue. Human rights are indivisible. Cultural and religious rights don’t come at the expense of women’s rights, they are basic principles and norms. Reforming the MMDA in no way affects the rights of Muslims, especially considering that half the Muslim population, Muslim women, will benefit by these reforms. There are no excuses left on the part of the government, they cannot have in their law books provisions that are so blatantly discriminatory and a violation of women’s rights. The government needs to commit to and start a process of reforming this act and bring it in line with international human rights standards.

As for Muslim male political and religious leaders (with the exception of a handful), they must realise that they can’t refer to human rights discourse only when their rights come under threat from other groups. If they want to defend human rights then they must do so on all issues, and for everyone, including women. You can’t pick and choose which rights you want to support and not. A large number of Muslim women have made their position clear on this issue – the MMDA must be reformed, there is neither time nor valid excuses for Muslim male leaders and the government to ignore them.


Editors note: For other articles and content we have carried on this issue, including compelling and exclusive video testimony from women, click here.