26 October, 2021

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MMDA; Rhetoric & Pretensions

By Shreen Abdul Saroor

Shreen Saroor

The reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) that Muslim women have been demanding for over four decades, is back on centre stage. Interestingly, the Muslim elite and religious and political representatives who were instrumental in continuously stalling any reforms now say they want reform; one needs to take this with a pinch of salt. While some male leaders have now come to accept the need for some changes to the MMDA, there has been fierce opposition against the decision of the cabinet, as part of a revised MMDA to abolish polygamy and the Quazi system. Some even oppose to accommodate the choice of Muslim to marry under General Marriage Ordinance. Looking at the struggle and lived experiences of Muslim women and children, the main reasons for their grave suffering are the fact that the MMDA provides, promotes and protects polygamy without any checks and maintains a Quazi system that stands apart from the regular judicial system. Surprisingly, and unfortunately, in their outraged rejection of the proposed amendments relating to polygamy and the Quazi system, many Muslim men seem to reduce their heritage and identity to polygamy and the Quazis! Those against the proposed reform rely on an outdated Quranic interpretation and align with the claim by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) that the MMDA is a divine law and therefore needs a special system able to interpret sharia clauses. These views depict Islam as a faith that promotes inequality and injustice. The fundamental principles of justice, and fairness preached by the Quran have been conveniently forgotten. 

The current controversy comes at a time when some of us have been fighting, in court rooms and various local and international platforms, against several autocratic, oppressive and anti-minority measures implemented by this government.

Many of my human rights colleagues tell us now that this is not the right government to ask for such reforms. This is the same argument that many misogynist and elite Muslim men tell us whenever we talk about MMDA reform. The struggle for reform has taken place across at least four successive regimes starting from Chandrika Kumaratunga. We are continuously told, each time, that it is not the right time. Then tell us, when is the right time? How many more children and adolescents need to be savaged by this system? How many more women need to be unfairly punished and thrown onto the streets to beg and children enrolled in madrasas that only teach to memorize the Quran. Now especially is not the time for silence.

Unfortunately, women fighting for reforms of the MMDA have also stayed silent about vociferous attacks they have been forced to endure for years. This is particularly because of Muslim men, and even some Muslim women, who are attempting to portray the MMDA reforms as the sole agenda of a racist government. They conveniently deny or refuse to recognise the long and arduous Muslim women’s rights struggle, particularly that of the victims of the MMDA and the Quazi system. They neither acknowledge the long-drawn struggle nor are interested in evaluating what needs to be done to reform. They seem to be unconcerned by the fact that if corrective measures are not taken now, we run the risk of losing the MMDA altogether. The arrogance and egoism of certain ‘learned’ Muslims, the militancy of various groups, the thuggery and obstinacy of ACJU and politicians seeking personal gains are the reasons why MMDA is not reformed to date.

Many colleagues who advocated for reform and brought out the voices of suppressed victims were targeted for revenge by the National Tawheed Jamat (NTJ) and Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamat (SLTJ) in 2016 and 2017. This was especially true after they gave testimony before Lal Wijenayake’s public consultative committee on constitutional reform and to parliament oversight and sub-committees. A member of the NTJ in a video bayan (sermon) called upon the Muslim youth in Puttalam to teach ‘proper Islam’ by killing one of my colleagues and me for the crime of going before parliamentary committees and pleading for the rights of women and children. The SLTJ on 3rd November 2016 brought people in bus loads and staged a protest in front of the Fort railway station against minimum age of marriage being made a condition for attaining the EU’s GSP+ trade benefits.  In that protest, SLTJ secretary Abdul Razik named women’s groups and called them western stooges and traitors. A colleague in the East who collected statistics on child marriages within the Muslim community was hushed by local mullahs and a person called Rilwan – who turned out to be one of the Easter Sunday suicide bombers. These groups resorted to intimidation and thuggery against moderate and reformist women and Muslims who had alternative views. Our complaints were ignored by politicians and authorities. Even now, many Muslim men and some Muslim women are spiting venom on reformists and preaching ideas that are eerily similar to what these radical groups preached during later part of 2016 and early days in 2017.

I ask women from other faiths to look into this issue carefully. Your Muslim sisters need you at a time not only when we are fighting for our own liberation but also when we are trying to protect others by telling the truth. 

The continued oppression of Muslim women through an unreformed MMDA and Quazi system is a manifestation of the entrenched patriarchy and male chauvinism in the Muslim community. Trotted out phrases one hears against reforms – that are ‘for protection of women’, “difficult for our women” and “our women have to mingle with others (if administration of reformed MMDA is brought under regular justice system)” – reveals a mindset that treats Muslim women as inanimate objects that can’t have an existence of their own. Those opposing reforms have no rational justification. This continued refusal to treat women as equals as decreed by Islam emanates from cultural not religious sources, and from their own insecurity of women becoming empowered. In that backdrop their demand for equal treatment of Muslims and privileges from the state sounds hollow and hypocritical. 

The dissemination of fake news and false information on the proposed MMDA reforms are on the increase, along with attempted intimidation of women fighting for reforms. On the 16th September 2021, speaking at the commemoration of the founding leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Mr. Rauff Hakeem, MP claimed that the current reform proposals are to abolish the foundation of the MMDA. He must have meant the stated proposal to abolish polygamy and Quazi system. He goes on to label those in support of the reforms as extremists! Such must be his political bankruptcy. Mr. Hakeem was the Minister of Justice for four years from 2010 to 2014. During his tenure as Justice Minister and even thereafter, several women’s groups, including affected women, explained their suffering in numerous meetings with him. They continuously engaged with him while he disingenuously assured them his support for reform. However, except for occasional pontifications and sanctimonious posturing in support of reform, there is nothing to show that he did anything to promote reforms to the MMDA. On the contrary, he has conveniently aligned with the obstructionist ACJU and has taken cover behind them.

Mr. Hakeem recently acknowledged that in February 2019 the then Prime Minister’s spouse had asked him about Zaharan and disturbing reports she had received of his increasingly violent militancy. While Mr Hakeen did not reveal his response nor what action he took, at a time when he was a powerful minister, he also failed to acknowledge that it was Muslim women who provided early warnings to the then Prime Minister’s Office about Zaharan, before his group carried out their barbarous attacks. This may have been because he dismissed this whistle blowing from women on the basis that it was not of evidentiary value.

Currently there seems to be a convergence of anti-reformists against much needed reforms of the MMDA. On the 19th September 2021, a group calling itself “Muslims Youth Islandwide” held their second virtual meeting online, after much criticism on social media of them having only male panellists at their first meeting related to the cabinet decision. Instead of raising awareness and providing a neutral space for diverse views on a critical topic of national interest, the group was steadfast against the proposed reforms. Their conduct and behaviour towards women panellists and others who held dissenting views depict the amount of religious intolerance within some young people. They allowed their chosen extremist men to intimidate and be uncouth while cutting short and keeping the female panellists’ microphones switched off irrespective of their repeated messages to unmute them. They promoted radical views to defend polygamy and the Quazi system and denied participation to others. It is hypocritical to hold a hegemonic state accountable for anti-Muslim policies when one does not treat Muslim women equally and refuses to be tolerant towards them. This group’s persuasion of an exclusionary ideology coupled with openly intolerant and aggressive masculinity is a matter of concern as it will feed extremism on all sides. The Muslim community must be vigilant to nip any form of extremism in the bud to avoid further radicalisation disaster.

There are false claims that polygamy and abolition of the Quazi system have not been part of the reform debate. In fact, both were deliberated over 9 years at length and dealt with in the report of Justice Saleem Marsoof Committee’s (JSM). In fact, there was unanimous agreement and recommendation in the JSM Committee’s report to amend the MMDA to elevate the institution of Quazi as an integral part of the Sri Lankan Judiciary with the reduction of the number of Quazis to be decided by the Judicial Service Commission[1].

After the horrific Easter Sunday bombings, national security took centre stage. The Parliamentary Oversight Committee on National Security of the last Parliament, which had two SLMC parliamentarians, identified the MMDA as a law that has bearing on national security. The Committee unanimously recommended that the MMDA should be amended and went as far as identifying areas of reform. It further recommended that the MMDA should be brought under the purview of the District Court[2]. It would do well to assess and evaluate matters mentioned therein and to deal with it as constitutionally as possible rather than arousing the sentiments of the community on false pretexts.

Any manifestation of violence claiming allegiance to faith, be it ISIS, Boko Haram, The Lord’s Resistance Army, RSS, Bajrang Dal, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Al-Qaida, Al-Shabaab or The Army of God has begun by targeting its extremist politics on women and children. Controlling women is the first step towards radicalizing a community. It is imperative that while defending the rights of the minorities from the majoritarian state, we also continue to raise critical issues about gender discrimination within the community to avoid playing into the hands of radical elements and racist politicians espousing the dangerous myth of ‘one country one law’.

[1] Hon. Justice Saleem Marsoof PC et al, Report of the Committee appointed to consider amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, (January 2018)

[2] Report of the Parliamentary Sectoral Committee on National Security dated 19-02-2020

*Shreen Abdul Saroor (Women’s Rights Activist)

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Latest comments

  • 16
    3

    A brave article from an Islamic woman. You cannot ask for a special law for Muslims in a multi cultural multi racial country. Women is women. Men is men.Women can fight for equal rights with women. Men can fight for equal rights with other Men. The law should be equal to all. I don’t know much about what is in Quran or Bible or Mahawamsa or Hindu Ahama. Religion should not be in politics. The minimum age of a marriage should be decided by scientists considering women and Mens physiological and mental development. Education should be mandatary until they reach minimum marriage age.

    • 7
      1

      Dear Ajith,
      .
      The article is a brave one, and I consider your response to be sensible.
      .
      Forget about being “authorities”, we can’t even be rational holders of sensible views on all the burning subjects of the day.
      .
      Like you, I, too, voice full-throated support for a minimum age of marriage and for the education of girls. I’m much more wary of voicing views on polygamy, divorce, and quazis. I do have liberal views on those aspects, too. However, it is best we don’t allow even the least tolerant adherents of the religion to point at us as wanting to destroy all their customs and culture.

      • 6
        1

        Thanks Sinhala_Man

    • 3
      5

      A brave article indeed. The timing is suspicious though.
      Whenever the Western Deepstate project to colonize Sri Lanka for a US military base in the Indian Ocean and the CIA designed and Saudi Funded Easter operation claimed by ISIS come up, also now with the US debacle in Afghanistan, the Muslim woman question pops up.

      Is it this perennial Muslim woman question used in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka to distract from the fact that that the US with its 800 military bases all over the world and addicted to war, the latest manifestation being AUKUS has destroyed countless Muslim countries – from Libya to Syria to Iraq to Iran where they staged a coup, Afghanistan occupied for 20 years etc?
      Also as Gayathri Spivak once said Colonialism is about “White men protecting brown women from brown men”?!

      • 5
        3

        Who wants a Clash of Civilizations between Buddhism and Islam to destabilize Asian economies? Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand are being targeted by the US Deepstate to destabilize the region just as they did during the Cold War, by Weaponizing religions, Buddhism and Islam against communist and socialist movements.
        Also why does not the Human Rights and Minority Rights industry NGOs in Sri Lanka ever talk about how their chief funders, USAID and EU, are militarizing the Indian Ocean region and promoting a nuclear arms race and enabling militarization of Sri Lanka with the Covid-19 pandemic hoax and militarized vaccination program?

        It is clear that the Deepstate wants to stage a “Clash of Civilizations between Buddhism and Islam” to Make Euro-America great again and ensure that the 21st Century will not be the century of Asia! That is why there is a Covid-19 hoax pandemic as the US empire crashed to smithereens

      • 6
        0

        Dinuk,
        .
        Don’t you read an article before you comment on it?
        .
        Shreen has been writing on this subject for years. What I didn’t know was that her husband was the late Professor Qadri Ismail, who was with me in the University. She has said:
        .
        “Many of my human rights colleagues tell us now that this is not the right government to ask for such reforms. This is the same argument that many misogynist and elite Muslim men tell us whenever we talk about MMDA reform.”
        .
        Actually, it is often the case that “extremists” (in this case the “Multipaksa government) is in a better position to get this sort of legislation passed. Of course, people like Shreen must make sure that what is passed must be made acceptable to her community. I tend to agree here with Gatam (who I think is a Muslim woman), and, for once, with Eagle Eye, but I wouldn’t want anybody to go about it as though punishing Muslim men. Why be so provocative?
        .
        Could you please explain what the right time is? Is it your intention to put a spanner in every works?

  • 12
    3

    It’s a good call for child marriage,how about child monk hood,
    Put full stops for this practice and minimum age should be 16.where is extremism,racism,haterism…..starting from,there is no one country one law at all,it’s all about “above”religion/race
    Irony is we were good under invaders,when they left we are invading and chasing for them.
    Make everyone equal,make English as official language and gives choice as subject of their language and religion.

    One of my friend’s wife is Sinhalese and she has birth certificate is in her lingo to get pass port she has to translate in English and has to be certified,I thought it’s only for Tamils,let it register in the English in the 1St place.

    • 8
      5

      Cugan,
      It’s a good call for child marriage,how about child monk hood,

      The difference is Child monks (Samaneras) can leave monkhood at anytime. There are no legal implications.

      • 9
        3

        I agree with Cugan. Child Monks is another form of human rights violation.

    • 2
      0

      Dear cugan,
      .
      This article is about Muslim marriages, and we should stick to that. However, since you have raised the issue of “What Languages should we use”, may I make just two comments here, and let’s go into details later when a more appropriate article gets written?
      .
      I’m an old man, I know only two languages, and English is very much the stronger. That goes for my family as well. So, personally, what you say suits me. However, this is true of not more than 5% of our population. How do we teach it to the rest?
      .
      My only employment has been the teaching of English. Please feel free to say anything rude about the practitioners of the trade; I don’t mind acknowledging that the way we’ve been going about it, we won’t spread the knowledge of English beyond that minority. That doesn’t mean that I accept defeat; I’m asking you to be realistic. Under foreign rule, life was all right for some of us, but we either had to device some means of teaching English to all, or we had to start using Sinhalese AND Tamil as well.
      .
      Now for the details: I’m glad that you have given as example something that jolted you into the realisation that what you had naively imagined upto the time that you had to go to a sworn translator that

      • 3
        0

        I’m sorry that’s the third time that has happened today!
        .
        Well, you had imagined that these problems with language affected only “Tamils”. No. I was born only months after independence. My parents knew English well enough, but my Birth Certificate is in Sinhalese, and I also was required to produce a “sworn translation”. Translating is a difficult job. To get certified a guy has to pass an exam demonstrating skills in reading and writing all three languages. (Nobody has so far bothered with oral/ aural skills).
        .
        In practice, translating a Birth Certificate is simple. I went to the “certified” guy with a translation done by me. To get that seal on, one would have to pay a minimum of 700/= today. The charge then also was ridiculously high. Births have to be registered in the Swabasha because there aren’t enough users of English to do the work any other way. Computer storage of data is in English, and if the documents have to be produced in some other country – English is standard, but depending on where one is headed, Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese, etc would be acceptable. Tamil in very few countries, Sinhalese probably in none.

  • 7
    0

    I’m sorry I don’t know where to put this ……. it’ about the only person in the house of congress that opposed the Afghan war ….. a brave women who was vilified and subjected to death threats for years …..

    I always admire people who have the courage to go against the “conventional wisdom.”

    https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-08-20/road-to-vindication-for-barbara-lee-the-only-member-of-congress-to-vote-against-afghanistan-war

  • 9
    2

    No MMDA!

    One marriage and divorce law for all Sri Lankans. End of story.

    • 4
      3

      GATAM,
      It is unfair to mandate that practices based on disparate cultures be made uniform.

    • 5
      2

      GATAM

      Don’t be Silly. In Sri Lanka, isn’t it quite common for the same law to have different applications to different people depending on who they are?

      One country, one law is just an empty slogan for political gains by self-serving opportunists.

  • 9
    1

    This is an excellent article. There is a reference to Mr. Rauff Hakeem. He is one of a breed of politicians who are wise and learned and very clever but are totally ineffective and feckless characters who never seem to be able to accomplish anything noteworthy. They project a larger than life persona but they have no remarkable accomplishments to their credit. All image and no performance. Ask him to mention one constructive thing he has done during the course of his long political career and he would be at a loss!

    Another chap like him is Ranil Wickremasinghe.

  • 9
    0

    Keep up your fight Madam – some day you will win and push this “misogyny -dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.” out of your religion and safe future generations of SL Muslim women – some who are not even born yet will be in your debt forever.

  • 1
    0

    There is general agreement that this article is excellent. Seventeen comment came in from about a dozen of us who comment regularly, and then discussion has ended three days ago. Where are the comments from the others who ought to have something to say?
    .
    I’m glad that there islamophobes and trolls are not much in evidence, but the more intelligent citizens ought to be more concerned about the need to support measures that will help this country overcome the impediments in the path of those who are fighting the obscurantists in our society.

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