Featured image courtesy The Sunday Leader
An old Greek fable goes something like this: A dog lying in a manger who did not eat grain, nevertheless prevented the horse who approached the manger from being able to eat anything either. The situation with regards to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) in Sri Lanka is similar.
The Muslim ministers in the Sri Lankan government ostensibly represent and serve their community. As much as we dislike communal politics, politics in this country is undeniably communal. Thus, while some Muslim politicians might have a large non Muslim voter base, the greater public and the Muslim community see them as representing the aspirations of the community of Muslims who are citizens of Sri Lanka. However with the contentious issue of reforming the MMDA, the Muslim ministers have clearly shown they represent only a section of their Muslim community – Muslim men and not Muslim women. The Muslim women, who are not in the workforce in any considerable numbers, and mostly visible in public thanks to their style of dress, are unable to rally a significant group of Muslim women to state their support for the reforms. Perhaps that is why the Muslim politicians do not think they are important. Yet, it is these very women who are at the butt end of the injustice perpetrated by archaic, discriminatory laws that give every advantage to a Muslim man and none to a Muslim woman. And therefore the Muslim politicians by not supporting the MMDA reforms in their entirety are perpetuating the pathetic situation of child brides and women abandoned by their husbands among other issues with no real recourse to solving their situation.
Unbeknown to most, who believe the struggle is a new one, the conversation for reform has been ongoing for thirty years. Ironically, the ACJU cautions Muslims not to rush into reforms, obviously believing that thirty years of asking for reforms is too hasty. While a handful of Muslim men have always actively supported the reforms, they have always been too few for the community or the government to take notice of. The majority who do support the reforms, prefer to be silent, in contrast to those who speak out against them. It is the opposing forces who get media time. It is their voice that is aired in mosques and sermons and their voices that hold the Muslim Ministers and Muslim community hostage. It is their voice that controls votes, the voice that confers power. It is the voice of the puppet master, for they have shown that the Muslim ministers are puppets. I cannot recall a single Muslim minister who has consistently and loudly supported the reforms. It is this wishy-washy behavior that has kept the MMDA in a stalemate for so many years.
The ACJU blew into my consciousness very recently. I had never heard of them, and never knew of their existence until perhaps five years ago. They claim they have existed since the early 1920s but they certainly did not exist in the form they embody today. Their website states that regarding women their main role is to “safeguard the Mothers of our future and current generations and to guide them on how to serve the community and country in areas most suitable for their contribution. In order to fulfill this, efforts will be made through the ACJU branches to conduct monthly programmes for the spiritual development of women to enable them to live a better life.”
In the town of Puttalam where I spend a lot of time, the ordinary Muslim man and woman let the mosque controlled by the ACJU dictate how their votes should go. If it happens in Puttalam you can be certain it happens elsewhere. And if they control a large number of mosques then, that is a voter base a Muslim minister would not want to alienate.
With the evil bombings on Easter Day by extremist Muslim terrorists (I deliberately call them extremist Muslim terrorists because even though it is a bitter pill for us Muslims to accept, until they committed acts of terror, these men and women were regarded as Muslims by all who knew them. More importantly the bombers considered themselves Muslim. Therefore in this article I will not use the more anaesthetised term Islamist) unsurprisingly the country was angry with the Muslim community. It was an opportunity handed on a golden platter to the fascist chauvinists, sadly many of them in government as well, to malign the Muslim community.
This time it was the call to reform of the MMDA by Muslim women activists that fueled the battle call of one country one law. It is a slogan deliberately catering to the masses and has attracted immense support from all sections of the country. However, a note of caution to them, is that the one country one law rule will not only affect Muslim personal law but also Kandyan personal law and Thesavalamai, but that is a discussion for another day.
I now come to the crux of my essay. Remember the old Greek fable? So here we have on the one hand the threat to abolish personal law, on the other hand very reasonable reforms offered by Muslim women activists to reform the MMDA. In this delicate vulnerable complex situation, what does the ACJU do? In all their chauvinistic glory, the ACJU is sitting on the manger of Muslim personal law refusing to give ear to reason and almost willingly courting the fascist chauvinistic standpoint. Can’t the ACJU see that if they don’t agree to the reforms the one country one law banner will be taken up not only by non Muslims but also by disillusioned, betrayed Muslim women who depended on their political and religious leaders for protection but only got stabbed in the back. The ACJU attitude of resistance to reason may result not in reform but abolition of all personal law.
And the Muslim ministers, what of them? They have lost my respect. And I ask all my Muslim brethren to see them for what they are- self interested opportunists. They have been instrumental in causing a blot on the great religion of Islam, they have betrayed the spirit and essence of a religion that calls itself peaceful and is grounded on the principles of justice and fair play, because while having power and responsibility, they refused to look after Muslim women.
My final message is to my government. We, Muslim women, are citizens of this country. Don’t treat us like second class outcasts. We are the most vulnerable section of your population. If you can’t protect us, who will? Please, I ask you, as our government step in. Ask the Minister of Justice to sign the reforms. If nothing else all Muslim women will ask God to bless you and yes, there is a good chance you will get their votes.
There is no time to lose.