By Rizani Hamin –
Our community is currently divided over debates regarding reforms to the Sri Lankan Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). The discussions are happening at multiple levels, these include whether or not the MMDA needs to be reformed, the reasons why and what kind of reforms are actually needed.
There are perhaps as many opinions as there Muslims in Sri Lanka, however in my observations over the past one year, the majority of our community refuses to support and/or advocate for all the demands for reforms that are coming from the very women who are and have been directly affected by discriminations under the MMDA and the Quazi court system. There is marked reluctance from the Sri Lankan Muslim community to accept that there are major (not just few and minor) problems with the MMDA and the Quazi court system, and that the current state of affairs is untenable.
This has left me with so many questions that I wish to express in this open letter to my community.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Well as you know, the reality is that there are certain provisions and procedures in the MMDA as well as practical issues in the Quazi court system that are harmful to Muslim women, and are treating Muslim women in an unfair and unjust manner. So many of our Sri Lankan Muslim sisters have been through so much trauma because they were married very young, divorced with no reason or warning, forced to be in polygamous marriages, and mistreated at the Quazi courts because the judges favored their husbands. Instead of encouraging compassion and harmony, the MMDA has become one of the main reasons for marital breakdowns among Muslims, who have a very high divorce rate in Sri Lanka.
These issues have been raised time and again by our sisters all over the country for many years. But they seem to fall on deaf ears, because our own community doesn’t want to listen to us or trust our experiences.
So firstly, lets ask ourselves, is the current MMDA the type of law and justice system we want associated with our community?
The family is the core unit of our community and society, it is the first place that we learn how to be good human beings, so it should be the first place where justice and equality is practiced.
It is also the first place we learn Islam. So what kind of Islam are we teaching our children, when they see what many of their Muslim mothers, aunts and sisters go through in Sri Lanka?
How is the MMDA viable when the very law itself is based on inequality between humans? Even between men and women and between sects and madhabs (schools of jurisprudence) because as we know the current MMDA apply the same to all Sri Lankan Muslims.
For example, it is as clear as day that the MMDA is based on the notion that men are of a higher status than women. The law itself treats adult women as ‘minors’ who require permission of male family members to marry. Science, fact and centuries of human existence has established that an adult woman is a full and complete human being with autonomy to make her own decisions, no different from any male counterpart. So why is it that we Muslims are still stuck with opinions that are centuries and centuries old, when humanity has moved on?
We fail to consider the diversity that constitutes our society. We cannot forget that in this day and age there are many types of families, some with no male members. What about women who are breadwinners and caretakers in female-headed households? Women who are making decisions in companies and organizations?
It is fair that they can’t decide on their own whom they can marry? Is it fair that simply because they are born female that they be considered lesser than men, despite the myriad of roles they play that prove otherwise?
Are the provisions in the MMDA really logical? If so what logic is it that simply to fulfill our narrow understanding of guardianship (wali) in Islam that in the event there are no male guardians, the MMDA goes to the extent making the Quazi judge, the man who gives consent to the bride to marry. Does it not strike us as ludicrous that our family law requires a complete stranger who is a Quazi, who has had nothing to do with the life of the bride to act as a guardian?
Next let’s discuss whether or not the MMDA really has the best interest of the family at the core of its formulation.
The concerns and impacts of child marriage are well documented and have been raised loud and clear by women’s groups. The logic is simple. If a girl is not able to make her own decision about whom and whether to marry, because of her age, then marriage is definitely not for her. Let’s compare this to the voting age in Sri Lanka. If it has been determined that a child is unable to decide whom to vote for, then they definitely can’t decide whom to marry. A vote is a temporary decision; to spend your life and start a family with another human being requires the full consent and knowledge of two adult human beings who understand partnership and responsibility. Instead of encouraging strong foundation of ‘family’, the MMDA allows for possible force, coercion and exploitation of our youth.
The MMDA also does not encourage strong family relations within the context of marriage. It allows for Muslim men (simply because they are men) to talaq or divorce their wives or take multiple wives for no particular reason or conditions, and even without their wives knowledge and consent. How is this possibly promoting good relations between spouses?
Do you know how many of our sisters have just been left by their husbands because his family wanted him to do so, or he lost his temper, changed his mind, or he can’t afford to maintain a family anymore? There are so many cases of men who have abused their wives and gave them talaq divorces with no consequences. I personally met a woman whose husband divorced her within a week and left her to fend for their two young children because he wanted to marry a woman with fairer complexion.
YES it is happening in Sri Lanka, and NO, all Muslim men are obviously not like this. But where the family law should protect against such situations – it actually rewards bad men the legal loopholes and excuse to do bad things, especially to women. What kind of family law is the MMDA, when it fails to protect the lives of our sisters?
And there are numerous cases of polygamy, where a woman has found out her husband has married someone else from her neighbors or a message on the mosque notice board. Many more cases where polygamy has led to women struggling to get child maintenance from their husbands, who can no longer afford to support two families.
Shouldn’t our community be encouraging Muslim families to have good communication and mutual decision-making between spouses? So what message are we sending when under the family law, a Muslim woman does not even need to know that her Muslim husband has taken another wife? It is a decision that will seriously affect her and her children. What kind of protections and safeguards is the law supposed to give her?
Why does the MMDA only protect and privilege the men of our community?
What does it say about us, if half of our community are discriminated by a family law that is supposed to be ‘tied to our Muslim identity’?
Are we supposed to be proud that we have a ‘special’ MMDA because we are Muslim?
What is so special about a family law that compels us Muslim women to sacrifice our own rights in the (so-called) name of Muslim identity and community?
What is so special about a law that suppresses our rights and implicitly treats us as less than our brothers just because we are not born male?
And why should we be proud of a law that put us at serious disadvantage from all others in Sri Lanka by denying us full guarantee of fundamental rights of our Constitution?
What is so great about a law that treats me and my sisters as second-class citizens?
What is so useful with a law that fails to protect us from perpetrators and makes us vulnerable to early and forced marriage, polygamy without choice and abandonment?
As a Muslim I wonder what kind of Muslim family law takes away the rights that the God I believe in gave us as human beings? The right to justice and equality, compassion and dignity.
When the country and the world offer Muslim women opportunities and potential to be anything we aspire to including judges and leaders. When Muslim women are now at the forefront of governments and courts, raising families, leading communities, leading change. When will the Sri Lankan Muslim community rise to acknowledge this?
The advent of Islam in the 7th century, brought sweeping changes to society and gave women unprecedented rights which were highly progressive during that time period. If we just take the spirit of that progress, our communities should be at the forefront of gender equality and justice at this day and age.
In this spirit, every Muslim should be supporting law reforms, policies and practices that will encourage women and girls to study further, take up leadership positions, be positive influencers in society and be treated equally with compassion and fairness in law and in land.
So why is there significant resistance from the Muslim community, our religious and political leaders and even reputable academics and professionals, for the most progressive reforms to the MMDA that will address all the issues that Muslim women and girls currently face and ensure that legal loopholes for misuse and abuse are addressed?
Why would anyone who has “ the best interest of the community at heart” continue to support unjust provisions in a family law that are seeking to restrict what rights Muslim women have simply based on some opinion of what constitutes Islamic law or Muslim identity?
And finally, if Islam promotes compassion, truth, dignity and justice, like I truly believe it does, then why do we have a Muslim family law that does not reflect that in principle and in practice?
The time has come for the Sri Lankan Muslim community to decide on whether to support equality for Muslim women, or to allow injustices to continue in the name of Islam. There is no middle ground, or ‘compromise’ to be made here. If you are not supporting positive and progressive reforms to the MMDA, then clearly you are not on the side of justice and equality for all Muslims.
So, what will you choose to do?
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