Featured photo by Hafsa Razi

For three long decades, Muslim women have fought to reform the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). Justice Saleem Marsoof’s Committee issued two sets of recommendations early last year, the culmination of nine years of work. Perhaps in response to the recent rhetoric of ‘one country one law,’ Muslim Members of Parliament (MPs) finally raised the issue in recent weeks, coming forward to iron out differences in the two sets of Marsoof Committee recommendations. The Prime Minister likewise finally stepped up, making MMDA reform a centrepiece of efforts to counter Islamic extremism post-Easter bombings. Now, with MPs and the Prime Minister finally working toward much-needed reform, a familiar spoiler has emerged to hijack the entire process for its cynical gain.

The All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) has been the elephant in the room in the reform processes throughout. The very reason the Marsooof Committee took nine years to submit their final report is that ACJU representatives on the committee like M.I.M. Rizwie (a man who has held ACJU top post for 20 long years) and its secretary Mubarak could not agree with learned Islamic scholars and legal experts on one set of recommendations. By hijacking the reform process at this late stage, ACJU is subverting the work of the Marsoof Committee, which had consulted with all relevant stakeholders (including ACJU) earlier in making recommendations for reform.

On 15th July, 2019, a document was leaked with 14 proposed reforms on which Muslim MPs had apparently reached an agreement and planned to advance for cabinet approval. The Prime Minister reportedly instructed Hon Haleem (Muslim Cultural Affairs Minister) and Hon. Thalatha Atukorale (Justice Minister) to co-sign and submit the concept note for Cabinet approval. But what we have witnessed over the last two weeks is nothing short of thuggery by ACJU. If we call Gnanasara Thero and Rathana Thero racists for spreading hate, then ACJU’s Rizwie and his team are doing the same against their own community members and must be called out.

First, ACJU sent a letter on 18th July 2019 warning twelve lawfully elected Muslim members of parliament, including senior cabinet ministers that if they reform this law incorporating the 14 points agreed amongst themselves that the MPs will be held responsible for a historic treachery and betrayal of the Muslim community. They then mobilised Muslim traders and mosque groups against Ministers and MPs who wanted reforms and sabotaged the proposed cabinet paper. Recently, two top officials in the Muslim Cultural Affairs Ministry told me that it is not their office’s role to reform this law but rather the Justice Ministry’s and that the affected women have to talk to Hon. Thalatha Atukorale. This stance was based on the reluctance of Minister Haleem to go ahead with the agreed Cabinet memorandum, possibly in fear of countering ACJU’s dictates. This underscores how ACJU brings elected members of parliament to their knees. Now, the ACJU is calling on other groups (such as the Thariqa groups) to join hands in getting the MMDA reformed their way or completely blocking it.

  1. Female Quazi and requirement of Quazis being qualified lawyers
  2. Mandatory registration of marriage
  3. Minimum age of marriage fixed at age 18

Female Quazis and Requiring Quazis to be Qualified Lawyers

ACJU in the last 10 years has spread its tentacles into the Quazi court structure. By articulating that this law needs to be interpreted within a Sharia / Islamic framework they have managed to get their members appointed as Quazis in many areas. Similar to the way they controlled Halal certification, ACJU wants full control over the 65 Quazi courts island-wide so that their grip on the Muslim community can be further tightened and to reflect their rigid, draconian interpretation of Islam.

Mandatory Registration of Marriage

Even though ACJU has agreed on conditional polygamy, they are against compulsory registration of marriage. Currently many women’s groups have recorded complex issues stemming from non-registration of Muslim marriages. If the marriage is not registered, there is no way to count how many times a Muslim man has married. I have personally come across cases where men have used this opportunity to marry more than 4 women. In one specific case, the man had 13 wives. The cases I have handled make me wonder whether these ulamas of ACJU want their men to get away with unaccountable and unlimited polygamy. One organisation I work with has recorded about 658 cases of unregistered marriages this year alone (many are second or third marriages). Without a valid marriage certificate, these wives are unable to get birth certificates for their children, send their children to school, or demand child maintenance when their husbands abandon them or wed other women.

Minimum age of marriage

Women’s groups have been seeking a minimum age of 18 for Muslim marriages, consistent with the minimum age for other communities. In opposing this reform, ACJU and its members are fixated on girlsage of marriage, arguing a minimum age of 18 would allow premarital sex and children born out-of-wedlock. It is very primitive reasoning and indicates that ACJU has sexualised the role of Muslim women from a very early age. Why is it that ACJU cares only about girls’ age of marriage? Irrespective of whether a girl has sex before the age of 18, marriage is certainly not the answer to prevent that. Further, do they think that every time a girl is raped that she should be punished by forced marriage? Or do they think that as soon as a girl is physically able, she should start producing children? Is it about forcing a woman to reproduce to increase the Muslim population? If yes, then aren’t some of the extremist monks and MPs right in their fear-mongering about Sri Lanka becoming an Islamic country in few decades? Or is it that they want young women and girls to fulfill their sexual pleasure and fantasies?

There is no easy way to say it. By vehemently opposing the minimum age of marriage at 18 and compulsory registration of Muslim marriages, the ACJU is using the MMDA to reduce Muslim women to sexual machines, to satisfy the sexual urges of their husbands and produce babies, without regard for their health and mental wellbeing and the societal norms of the country we live in. By opposing lawyers and women being Quazis, the ACJU has shown that they believe Muslim women are inferior to non-Muslim women and do not have the mental capacity to be judges, despite Muslim women being appointed as judges in civil courts. More importantly, they want to execute their agenda through a kangaroo court system that is under their control and will strictly implement Shafi sect views, which they in turn interpret to suit their chauvinistic whims, totally disregarding developments on marriage and divorce law in the Islamic world.

ACJU cannot claim to speak for the Muslim community. Time and again, ACJU has been a spoiler in the reform process. Its input was received and considered by the Marsoof Committee, which made concrete recommendations for reform. ACJU’s attempt now to hijack a reform process years in the making exposes their true motivations and must be blocked. They are not acting in good faith and do not have the best interests of Muslim women and children at heart.

The government of Sri Lanka is obligated to protect the rights of its citizens. Article 12 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka requires equal treatment under the law for all Sri Lankans—not second-class treatment for Muslim women and children. The State cannot abdicate its legal and moral duty to ACJU, an unelected self-appointed entity purporting to speak for the Muslim community. Reforming the MMDA provides justice to those who have been historically marginalised and treated unequally under patriarchal and misogynist laws. It has nothing to do with Islam or the Quran as ACJU deceivingly portrays—a look at marriage laws in several Islamic countries exposes that lie. The government must reject ACJU’s attempts to subvert the democratic process and recognise their cynical ploy for what it is—just another attempt to advance their own brand of extremist ideology at the expense of Sri Lanka’s Muslim women and children.