By Ameer Ali –
If procrastination and inaction are the defining characteristics of the Yahapalanaya regime then the saga of the Marsoof report on Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) says it all. This Act of 1951, whose genesis actually goes back to 18th century Dutch ruled Batavia, was borrowed and adapted by our British colonial masters to suit conditions prevailing in the Ceylon of 1806. What was a convenient and quick solution to an issue of Muslim social and religious management by an alien power, was, after independence, given legislative format in 1951, which in course of time, has become a misogynous instrument of injustice and suppression to Muslim women. Apart from certain marginal changes in the implementation of the act the substance of it remained almost intact since colonial times.
At last in 2009 an eighteen member committee chaired by a former Supreme Court judge, Saleem Marsoof, was appointed to investigate the issue and report to the government. After nine years of deliberation, wrangles and gestation the chairperson handed in the report to the female Minister of Justice in January 2018. Justice Marsoof also submitted a dissenting report apparently engineered by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), whose president was also a member of that committee. It took another six months for the ministry to release that report to the public.
On July 24th the Muslim members of Parliament (all males) appear to have met ACJU for further discussion. What is shocking in this saga is the inordinate delay and inaction on the part of the President, the Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers on a matter that is so vital to the status and lives of almost one half of the country’s Muslim population. Is this because the victims are Muslim women? Or, is it because the government is concerned about the Muslim vote bank controlled by ACJU? In any case, who gave the mandate to ACJU to dictate terms to legal experts and intellectuals on a matter in which ACJU has no monopoly of expertise?
How backward looking this institution is evident from the name itself. The so called apex body of the ulama prefers to situate itself in colonial Ceylon rather than in independent Sri Lanka. It also has no place for female ulama within its membership, because it does not consider women eligible to become alims. The country is yet to see its first Muslim female religious scholar. This is in total contradiction to the history of Islamic scholarship which produced some eminent female religious scholars such as Amrah bint Abdur Rahman, Umm Darda, Fatima bint Ibrahim b Jowhar and Ayesha bint Abdul Hadi to name a few, and who taught even male imams in Damascus. It is a shame that when women are leading prayers in mixed congregations in other parts of the world, in Sri Lanka even working Muslim women are not allowed to attend mosques to perform their daily prayers. This is another battle awaiting Muslim women in the country.
It is also disappointing to note that instead of hearing deafening noises in support of reforming MMDA there appears to be a conspiratorial silence on the part of Muslim intellectuals on this matter. Are they afraid of a fatwa from ACJU? By allowing the politicians and mullahs to decide the marital conditions of Muslim women the intellectuals are betraying the social trust and contract bestowed upon them by the community. This is yet another reflection of the pathetic condition of Muslim leadership in the country.
The Marsoof committee report has recommended some progressive reforms, including higher marriageable age, consent of the bride before marriage, stricter conditions on polygamy, women Qazis and women members in Muslim Marriage and Divorce Advisory Board, women registrars of Muslim marriage, abolition of dowry in all forms. It is time the government stop procrastinating and bring legislation to implement these recommendations. If not, at least allow as a last resort, as the report suggests, an option to Muslim women to marry under the General Marriage Ordinance.