In the name of God, the most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.
I would like to address some misconceptions about the reforms for the MMDA (Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act) in Sri Lanka.
1. The rumour that is has to do with with pressure from the EU is a lie. This rhetoric is being used to misinform Muslims into believing that pressure is being exerted externally. Reforms started way back in the 1970’s by Muslim men. I even attended a meeting by the Muslim Women’s Action Forum in 2010, where reforms were discussed. The committee set up to recommend the reforms was created in 2009, due to social issues in the community much before the GSP+ issue came about. The war and unstable politics in the country resulted in the reforms taking a backseat until this year.
2. Reform is being requested from within the community, both by those who have been adversely affected by it, and those who have studied religion and shariah law and know the current process does not reflect Islamic teachings or Ijma (scholarly consensus). Dr Hamid Farouque, a close family friend, who led the reforms in the 1970’s, is a religious Muslim and scholar of law, who understood changes had to be made to the MMDA, 46 years ago. According to Dr Farouque, “Before I came to Australia in 1972, the Muslim Law Research Committee comprising of a number of Muslim lawyers and an Alim handed over our recommendations to the government.” However no action was taken. In 1990 the Sahabdeen committee was set up to propose reforms. They submitted a report and again, the reforms did not materialize. The current reform committee was set up in 2009 and is led by Justice Saleem Marsoof.
3. Please remember that the reforms being asked conform within the rulings in the Quran and Sunnah. Islamic marriage laws are practical, liberal and cover a range of relationships that even secular laws barely grasp. They respect the needs and rights of everyone concerned and learning about it by looking at everyone’s arguments has been enlightening.
4. The reforms ask for better training of Qazis(Judges) and a crackdown on corrupt Qazis. Qazis are arbitrarily selected and are usually lawyers or moulavis. Someone from the ACJU (All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema) who is a family member admitted that some Qazis were caught taking bribes to delay or deliver fast divorces. There is a redressal system in place, but it needs to be more transparent so inept Qazis can answer to the community and be held responsible for their verdicts. Both men and women have the right to justice, and to have Qazis be unreasonable about it or delay it for money is unIslamic. If you would like to read the full history of the impact of Qazi courts on Muslim women, Justice Saleem Marsoof has compiled a report here.
Originally the Qazi courts were created to help women seek justice easily. District courts take a longer time to make a judgement, and it is an expensive process. However, with everything in life, even good systems need to be checked and administered properly or will be exploited.
5. Female presence on Qazi boards. The Prophet (peace be upon him) consulted and respected the opinions of his female companions. The Qazi board should do the same. This is because when men monopolize decisions regarding women, they inadvertently fail to realize the impact their decisions can have on women’s lives. In shariah courts in Birmingham and Malaysia a tribunal system is in place of two men and one women, who make a joint decision regarding an issue. Having another woman present to relay the case will preserve the honor of the female plaintive and will make her feel comfortable in relating her side of the story, especially if there are intimate issues to be discussed.
6. I understand age is a social construct. I know a number doesn’t define maturity. However, our current social construct is defined by the education system, which has helped eradicate illiteracy, elevate poverty, and create opportunities for a stable life. Let everyone avail of this. By asking for a higher minimum age, they are ensuring that girls can complete school education. Poverty is not en excuse. I know poor families who have ensured their daughters finished school/religious education (madrasa) till 18, and this has helped the family as a whole. And also helped them find a better groom for marriage.
What has been discovered, in the narratives of women I have interacted with is that in the event a woman who has married young (thereby unable to complete formal education) and is faced with divorce or widowhood, and comes from disadvantaged situation, she automatically plunges into a state of poverty, and will have to support herself with low paid unskilled work. She may have to leave the country for migrant work, and if she has children, leave them to make a living. This is the story of my own maid, who married at 15, had five children, got divorced from her alcoholic and abusive husband, and then left for Kuwait for work. Her extended family lived off her money. When she came back, her children were scattered, and she died while in our care, with not a single relative attending her funeral.
Funnily those who oppose this reform, got married after 18, finished school, and availed the opportunities schooling gave them. They did not become maids in the Middle East or work menial jobs because someone prevented them from finishing school. Or the day came when their husbands and fathers stopped supporting them. If you were given that opportunity, other girls deserve it too.
7. The people who are opposing reform are doing so because the issue has only recently come to their notice, so they assume its some modern western conspiracy to damage the community. They also come from privileged and sheltered backgrounds so they are unaware of the plight of poor women and men in Qazi courts and the impact of a lost education on women. For those who have been following the reforms for years (since the last 46 years in fact) know that the men and women behind them are Muslims that have the best interests of the community and the religion in mind and they want the reforms to be Shariah compliant. In Islam there are several solutions to a problem, and all must be explored to find the best solution. Sticking to only one school of thought may not provide all the solutions, which is why even other countries that have been traditionally Shafi or Hanafi are slowly seeing the wisdom in Ijma (scholarly consensus) and Ijtihad (reasoning).
Women are facing genuine social problems, families are being broken and children are not cared for. I visited an orphanage two weeks ago and many of the little girls had parents who were both alive, but because of divorce and separation, no one was there to care for them, and they had been left at a home for girls.
Since Islam calls for its people to uphold justice, even if those in power forget, the common people have come forward in that spirit of justice. There are members in the community who are afraid, or ambivalent about the reforms. They think that other communities also have unfair laws related to women and children, but only the Muslims are getting all the attention. We do not need to wait for other communities to reform their laws to start on ours. We can be the precedent for fighting injustice.
Does it make sense then to ask that women give written consent? That they finish school? That the children receive proper maintenance from their fathers? That Qazis are better trained? That men are taught to be responsible fathers and husbands? That wives are treated fairly? That women learn to take care of themselves with dignity? That reconciliation is sought before divorce?
They are worried that the women asking for reforms are not in hijab, or the men do not have long enough beards. Or to question ulema is a crime. Or that Sri Lankan Muslim culture is not ready for this. The core of the Islamic spirit is to question injustice.
For all the clothes we wear, charity we give and number of prayers we perform. How can we fail this basic Islamic tenet to stand up for social justice? We are held responsible to act when we see injustice in front of our eyes.
I only urge you to think carefully, wisely and justly, and remember how the Prophet (peace be upon him) stood up for the underprivileged and exploited, and questioned the traditions of his time.
See link below for a sample Muslim marriage contract we can be inspired by. All Sri Lankan Muslims should read the document in the link below.
I want everyone to understand that this has been an ongoing debate for decades and will Insha Allah be dealt with responsibly. Let’s work together for this. And not against each other. Ultimately we are all human and only Allah knows best.
Peace and Love,
-A girl who is inspired by the Islamic perspective on love, marriage, and justice (which the MMDA needs to be reformed to uphold) and is petrified by lengthy court ordeals and one sided relationships that can be made possible by the GMRO (General Marriage Registration Ordinance).