By Rizani Hamin –
One year after the report of the 2009 MMDA Committee appointed to suggest amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) was submitted to the Ministry of Justice, there appears to be some discussion at the ministerial level about next steps for MMDA reform. However, these discussions have been heading in the wrong direction.
On February 7th, a meeting was called between Muslim MP’s and members of the 2009 Committee, instead it came to light that members of Muslim male organisations such as the Young Muslim Men’s Association (YMMA) and conservative religious institutions were also in attendance. Clearly missing were more Muslim women who have been the primary force pushing for reform. But most of all, missing was any conversation about whether or not the proposed amendments would address the issues and concerns Muslim women have been raising.
The split nature of the Committee report, especially on key issues such as child marriage and women as Quazis (judges), has put the government in a difficult position. But instead of recognising the tension points, conservative ideologies and deep patriarchal attitudes influencing the split reports, the Minister of Justice is putting pressure on Committee members to come to a ‘consensus’ on points of difference.
Instead of taking time to understand each issue at hand and figure out what kind of amendment would best resolve the contemporary problems facing Muslim women and girls today, the Ministry is relying on primarily Muslim male religious leaders and male members of Muslim organisations to compromise on the nature of amendments. For the government this is the most convenient band-aid solution, and it will definitely do much more harm than good. The rights of women and girls once again used as bargaining chips in political play.
Muslim women, especially those most affected by the MMDA currently and to whom these amendments will most impact, are deliberately being shut out of the process. Has the Ministry of Justice given the same time and opportunities to meet with Muslim women activists and groups as it has with Muslim men’s groups?
Let me remind the Muslim community and the government of Sri Lanka that reform of the MMDA came about as a result of Muslim women raising their concerns for the past 25+ years. To keep women out of the process is the worst possible way to deal with reform and it is guaranteed that reform will not be successful if women’s concerns are not a fundamental part of every step, especially in deciding on what amendments need to be made.
Merely inviting women to discussions is also not enough, understanding what types of issues Muslim women and girls face and finding the most viable solutions to address them, is the right way forward.
For example – Raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years with exceptions for 14 or 16 will not resolve the child marriage issues within the Muslim communities, because government data on registered Muslim marriages shows that most of the child marriage cases are occurring between 15 – 17 years of age.
Not allowing Muslim women to be Quazis (judges), is not only a blatant violation of our fundamental human rights, but also a deep violation of Islamic principles of justice and equality as there is no evidence in the Qur’an or Sunnah that prohibits women from being leaders or judges. The only excuses given by conservative religious scholars and Muslim MP’s who support this stance is based on deep patriarchal biases of what women can and cannot do.
Is the government going to actually listen to and agree to the reasoning that Muslim women can’t be Quazis (judges) because women are ‘emotional’, we menstruate and are biologically incapable of passing judgements? Because it is these types of reasons that All Ceylon Jammiyathul Ulama (ACJU) and others give for stopping women from becoming Quazis.
Not allowing Muslim women equal rights in marriage and divorce is not only unjust and unequal, it is un-Islamic! The notion that men have more rights in marriage and divorce for simply being born men is a pre-historic idea that no longer applies to our time. Take a look at contemporary Muslim families – women and men play shared roles and responsibilities of earning and caretaking. Marriage is a meant to be a partnership of equals, but our family law still treats women as minors in need of protection. It is denying us the rights that Islam promotes – the right to live our lives with dignity.
While either side of the split committee argues that their interpretation of Shari’ah is the right interpretation, there are actual human lives that are being affected on a daily basis.
It is actually patriarchy that is stopping women from being Quazis (judges), not Islam. It is patriarchy that is stopping Muslim women from getting their due rights under the MMDA and the Sri Lankan Constitution, not Islam!
So is the government of Sri Lanka and the Ministry of Justice which is supposed to uphold human rights of all citizens, going to allow for conservative Muslim men of Sri Lanka to continue to dictate the nature of reform? Are they going to let Muslim men use religion as an excuse to weasel for more privileges and opportunities to continue to control and discriminate against Muslim women?
There is a growing movement of Muslim women and men the world over who are reclaiming the narrative that Islam is a just and compassionate religion, instead of a patriarchal and unjust one. The MMDA cannot continue to be another law that contributes to injustices against Muslim women and girls, now or in the future.
Simply because of the archaic ideologies of some Muslim men, the rights of Sri Lankan Muslim women and girls cannot be compromised. Instead of progressing our communities, it will keep us in self-inflicted oppression.
We refuse to be excluded from the MMDA reform process again and again. We demand that our voices and concerns are heard and that all of them are addressed. No reform will be successful unless and until Muslim women and our experiences are a central part of any and all discussions relating to the MMDA.