By Shreen Abdul Saroor –
67 years old law, 30 years of Muslim women’s struggle, 5 reform attempts and 9 years of deliberation of Justice Saleem Marsoof’s Committee on MMDA reform –What is next?
“Fear Allah! Do not do injustice to your own community women and girls” was the slogan of many of the women who stood near the parliament opposing the elected Muslim men discussing the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) reform report with All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU – yet another males only body) on 24thJuly 2018. There would have been about 30 of them, yet it was powerful, because at least a dozen of them were victims of MMDA and they were protesting for the very first time in public and questioning a religious body that has self nominated itself as guardians and has been monopolizing the religious and community spaces without much resistance or questioning of their legitimacy. Actually ACJU’s politicking goes way beyond how some of our communal minded members of parliament have used the religion for their political advancement. The most recent example is the ACJU’s decision of celebrating the Ramadan festival a day later even after the first moon has been sighted by many.
The MMDA reform report was handed over in January this year to the Justice Minister Hon. Thalatha Atukorale by the chairperson after 09 long years of deliberations by the 18-member committee. It took almost 06 months for justice ministry to release this report officially in the justice ministry website while the report was leaked to media a few times. However the committee members are split into two and each group has given a different set of recommendations on the matters that they could not come to agreement.
There is a lot of talk about the disagreements between these two groups and each trying to claim whose report is valid and whose recommendations should be acceptable under Sharia principles and Islamic jurisprudence. In this back drop we see the 24th meeting as part of a plot by the ACJU through a cabinet minister, who from the initial discussion of the reform process has very vehemently argued, wrongly, that MMDA is a divine law thus untouchable. One thing must be stressed here is that on almost 2/3 of the issues raised on this law as requiring revisions the full committee of 18 have agreed. There is unanimity on making conditions to polygamy, seeking women’s consent for marriage, compulsory compensation to women for unilateral Thalaq etc. However there are among others at least 4 key issues on which the committee is split into two and these are core to many women’s groups and affected women’s demand for reform pertaining to the substantive part of this law:
1. Age of marriage to be 18 as it applies currently to other women in this country.
2. Equal representation of women in the structures that implement the MMDA specially women to be appointed as Quazi judges.
3. Compulsory registration of Muslim Marriages.
4. Taking out reference to sect or madhabs, so that all matters fall under “Muslim law” and for opinions of all recognized schools of thought to be considered in making orders and decisions of the Quazi Court and the appellate courts.
The committee comprises of 9 including the chairperson (Justice Saleem Marsoof) have recommended all the above changes but the other half of the committee has not agreed on these key issues and submitted a 8 page report signed by nine members and led by ACJU president M. I. M Rizwe of their alternative conservative stance.
In 2009 the former justice minister Milinda Moragoda would have had the same concerns as the current justice minister Thalatha Athukorale: that this is an issue that concerns a religiously identified community and therefore appointed mostly Islamic scholars, legal professionals and community representatives and 2 ACJU members (President and General Secretary) to look into the reform within the religious frame work. The committee has done exactly that and the 300 odd pages of Justice Saleem Marsoof’s committee report and another 302 pages of annexures in the form of Vol. 02 stand evidence to that. It draws examples from other Muslim countries’ reforms, applicability of Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh), draws conclusion based on contemporary studies here and elsewhere. And most importantly it has the annexures of submissions made by many community representatives & organisations, Muslim academics, Islamic scholars, religious groups and most importantly affidavits of the very affected women. What more one needs???
So Minister Thalatha Athukorale it is time you take responsibility as the Justice Minister and proceed with the reform process. Please follow due process and ensure that the draft you submit to cabinet and table in the parliament responds to the concerns of women and girls and fully respects the fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution and gets voted. Principles of equality and justice should guide the reforms. It is not only the 20 odd Muslim Members of Parliament who are going to vote on this but all 225 MPs in the Parliament. It is going to be a law that is given legal effect by the Parliament of Sri Lanka. Therefore it is also the Muslim community pro-reformists’ responsibility to create that awareness and work with 225 legislators. Remember it is an unequal law of this country and has been contributing to grave child rights and women’s rights violations in this country on day-to-day basis. Every minute you as the Minister delay this process and call for consultations after consultations in order to water down the progressive recommendations you too are making it a communal issue. You made history when you became Sri Lanka’s first female justice minister and it gave all of us hope. Now it is time for you to live up to the expectations. We women will not settle for anything less.