Featured image provided by author, of her maternal grandfather and relatives

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) is in need of amendment and has been under the scrutiny of a most ineffectual committee for the past nine years. For years, individuals and groups of Muslims have expressed concern at this disgraceful situation.

Earlier this year, I was invited to attend a closed door conversation regarding the ongoing discussion on MMDA reform. After listening to many minutes of intellectual sounding dilemmas on how to tackle the situation of Muslim men not wanting Muslim women to access rights that other Sri Lankan women enjoy, I was struck by a comment one of the Muslim participants made to the group, which was made up of both Muslim and non-Muslim people. This woman said that she felt we needed to ‘handle’ the Muslim men carefully and that we needed to ‘soften’ them up. The word ‘soften’ struck me violently at that time and has stayed with me since. I was outraged that I as a Muslim woman would have to wait for a Muslim man to ‘soften’ in order for me to enjoy legal rights to which other women in Sri Lanka are entitled.

There is clearly something wrong with the picture when one half of a community is dependent on the whims of the other half. If this situation was applicable in a different context and in a different country, say with regard to one ethnicity having power over another, everybody would be incensed. So why is it allowed that Muslim men to make important decisions that affect Muslim women negatively?

The biggest stumbling block for any sort of amendment to the status quo is that both Muslim men and women are under the impression that Sharia is God ordained and thus inviolable and fixed. It is in the interests of Muslim men to perpetuate that impression. The many articles written by both Muslim scholars and informed lay members of the community on this mistaken impression, have, as of now, done nothing to change that mindset. It seems almost pointless to discuss it once again here. Instead, I will write about how I feel as a Muslim woman, in such a situation.

Religion is a matter of faith. We are born into the faith of our parents and most often we embrace it and thus are labeled as belonging to a particular religion. Religion becomes then a pure accident of birth or adoption.

But a Muslim woman, abiding by the Muslim faith that she was born into, has to accept a few anomalies. Not only does she have fewer rights than a Muslim man, a Muslim man can dictate how she leads much of her life. I want everybody reading this article to look at that phrase. Isn’t this clearly wrong and unjust?

Before I continue, let me put myself in context here. As an individual, I have been able to live my life to the best of my capabilities, enjoying similar rights to any other woman in Sri Lanka. However, the bottom line is that because I belong to the Muslim faith, legally I have fewer rights than other Sri Lankan women. This means that the law, the most important element that technically is established for my protection, in reality does not protect me or the thousands of other Muslim women in Sri Lanka.

Author’s paternal grandmother and relatives

For a Muslim woman, the right to choose a spouse, to decide the age at which she marries, to have the joy of choosing a beloved aunt or girl friend as witness to her marriage is not guaranteed in the first two instances and not possible in the third. She doesn’t even have control over her sexuality, as she can be married off as a minor (that is at any age really) by her male guardian. She would have to endure sexual intercourse from puberty, whether she was mentally ready for it or not, and whether she wanted to engage in sexual intercourse as a child or not.

The area of divorce is yet another arena where the Muslim woman has less rights than a man. A husband has a unilateral right of divorce without giving any reasons, while a Muslim woman’s right to divorce is conditional. In a Qazi court only a male Muslim can be appointed as a judge. In addition, regardless of her age, most Muslim women go to the divorce courts accompanied by a male guardian. This means it is a male environment that a Muslim woman has to enter, an environment that can be hostile to her needs and requirements.

Let’s talk about the field of inheritance. Here too the law ensures that a  Muslim woman   will inherit less than a man. Technically, if her parents die without making a will, she inherits only half of what her brother is entitled to and progressively less on a diminishing scale in the case of many male siblings. Similarly, if her spouse passes away, she inherits only a small percentage of her husband’s assets. Now, does any of this sound fair and logical? Doesn’t all this sound as if a Muslim woman is forced to be inferior to a Muslim man?

To me, it does.

Having set the stage, there are two salient points I want to make and then offer an obvious solution. One is about reforming the MMDA and the other is about the State of Sri Lanka and its responsibilities to all of its citizens as a whole.

The Saleem Marsoof Committee should apply to the Guinness Book of Records for taking the longest time to produce a report. Nine years and counting. These men and women, obviously not having the best interests of Muslim women at heart, should be sent home, the committee disbanded and the charade put to an end. Which also means, Muslim women and the larger Sri Lankan population should not depend on any Muslim committee to bring about reform regarding the MMDA. Chauvinistic and traditional Muslim men will always hide behind archaic Islamic laws, citing Shariah, hadiths and the Quran to legitimise their power over Muslim women. So let that rest. I would advise everyone to have really low expectations for this committee to produce anything worthwhile.

The second point is that luckily for Muslim women, we don’t live in a separate country. We live in Sri Lanka, an independent nation state, which has a different, more equitable set of laws for the rest of the population when it concerns the same areas governed under Muslim personal law: marriage, divorce, inheritance. Until now, the Sri Lankan State has sided with male Muslim chauvinists and avoided the subject of reforming the MMDA. Bullied by Muslim male ministers and self appointed clergy, they seem to be too scared to touch the issue, citing religious sensitivities and the respecting of cultural differences.

But there is a temporary solution, until sanity prevails and the entire Muslim community requests for Muslim women to be treated fairly. It is a very simple solution. Enact a law that will allow Muslim women the freedom to apply to be governed under civil law in the areas of marriage and divorce. You may ask, why do I not include inheritance. Here is the beauty of the situation. Muslims can make a civil will. So in the case of inheritance, we can already function, if we choose, under civil law. So why not for marriage and divorce, until the MMDA can be reformed suitably?

To read more of our coverage of the ongoing push for the reform of the MMDA (including first person narratives highlighting problems under the Act) click here