By Ameer Ali –
Attempts to reform an outdated piece of legislation, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), and empower Muslim women to have a say in determining their conjugal life, appear to have hit a brick wall, partly because of a gutless woman Minister of Justice and partly because of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), an unelected body of theocratic delinquents arrogantly claiming monopoly over interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts. Much has been said about the positive recommendations made by the Marsoof Committee, and it is pointless to repeat them here. However, it is important to remind those who are standing in the way of reform and progress that an increasing number of Muslim women, no matter what the Mullahs think about them, are on the march to liberate themselves from centuries-old injudicious rules and regulations imposed upon them with a divine seal by a theological patriarchy that seems to be oblivious to the changing intellectual environment of the female half of Muslim world.
Historically, with few exceptions, it was the men who interpreted the Holy texts of Islam and dictated to women what those scriptures taught about women’s status and their rights and duties. Given the patriarchal structure of societies at that time there was an understandable gender bias in the male interpretation, which virtually confined the women to kitchens and bedrooms. That situation is quickly vanishing and women are now learning themselves, thanks to modern education and technology, not only what the Quran and Hadiths are saying about women as well as men but also, and more importantly, why they are saying so. It is the latter that is opening up new vistas of knowledge regarding the role and history of women in Islam. Muslim women are rereading the history of their religion and relearning about the life and times of the Prophet. There is, in short, a silent revolution taking place in the world of daughters of Islam and that revolution is unstoppable.
To those Muslim men who have cultivated the habit of reading (a rare virtue in today’s world of instant knowledge through Google) my humble advice is to search out in the internet and study the writings of some of the astonishing products of Muslim female scholars such as the late Fatima Mernissi (Moroccan Professor of Sociology and Islamic Studies), Amina Wadud (Professor in Quranic Studies), Kecia Ali (Professor of religion at Boston University), Shaheen Sardar Ali (Professor at the University of Gottingen), Asma Lamrabet (Moroccan doctor and author), Leila Ahmad (Egyptian-American scholar) and several others. Their critical and penetrating insight into Islamic religious thought and knowledge with impeccable command over classical Arabic has won worldwide recognition. Their originality of thought and rationality of arguments have created a new genre of research in the field of Muslim women studies. The practical impact of their research and publications is demonstrated in a number of constructive initiatives by women activists.
In some countries Muslim women are establishing their own mosques, officiating as imams and conducting daily prayers for even mixed congregations, delivering khutba (sermons) on Fridays and on days of Eid, acting as marriage celebrants and adjudicating marriage disputes. In several other countries, including the Arabic Middle East, mosques that traditionally barred women from entering, like in Sri Lanka, are now forced to open their doors and admit them. In neighbouring India, in the state of Kerala there is a women leading prayers for mixed congregation.
It is indeed too radical and unrealistic to expect such sweeping changes to take place in Sri Lanka at the moment, even though those developments will be unstoppable in the future. However, measures that are least controversial and recommended by experts and the erudite after careful scrutiny, like the Marsoof recommendations regarding MMDA, should be implemented so that future generations of Muslim women can take their place as equal partners with men in building their community and the country. Muslim women are increasingly entering the job market and becoming economically independent. They are prepared to share the financial burden of running a family without depending solely on the income of the husband. They are intelligent, smart and even better skilled than some of the Muslim men. Why then are they being denied a say in selecting their life partners and divorcing him when that partnership doesn’t work out? Why should they be virtually sold in the marriage market for an exorbitant dowry? Why shouldn’t qualified women officiate as judges in resolving marriage disputes? Why? Why? Why?
The Muslim community in Sri Lanka is in desperate need of an intellectual and political leadership that has clear vision and foresight in relation to future developments in the socio-economic, intellectual and political landscape of the nation. They should drive the community like a locomotive fearlessly and by avoiding the obstacles placed on the way by miscreants. There was such a leadership in the past and it is because of its thoughtful guidance and bold actions Muslim girls are at least competing now in the field of higher education and entering the job market. Will this educated female generation accept without revolting against the prevailing inequities and injustices entrenched in the MMDA? If peaceful changes are made impossible violent changes become inevitable. It is this fear of a potential revolt by educated women against tradition, as I argued in an earlier piece (CT 16 August 2018), that prompted Muslim integrists (a derivation from French integrisme, referring to a movement or tendency within the Catholic Church that advocated integration of the state and the Church as opposed to the Enlightenment philosophy of separation of the two) like Boko Haram and Taliban to stop girls from attending schools and even put those schools to the torch.
One half of the Muslim population, and for that matter of all population, are women. It was the women who brought even the other half to this world. Without them therefore, there is no humanity. The womb that carries the child belongs only to women and not to men. Perhaps, it is because of this unchangeable biological fact that among the ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah, al-Rahman (the Merciful) and al-Raheem (the Compassionate), the two most frequently uttered by every Muslim, derive from the Arabic root r-h-m, which means womb. Doesn’t this infer to a thinking mind something about the honoured status that Islam bestows upon women? Why then the Mullah is denying that status and rights that go along with it?
“Women are the Future of Islam” is the title of a recent book authored by Sherin Khankan, a Muslim woman activist who built the Mariam Mosque for women in Denmark. It is an apt title because the Prophet had already said that it is on the lap of the mother lies the paradise of the child. The mother is the present and child is the future. It is the woman who shapes the future of Islam and in that she is even more equal than the man. Let the Marsoof recommendations be legislated to empower Muslim women. If ACJU refuses to reform from within, then that institution should be discarded from without.