Reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) have been pending since the previous Yahapalana Government, and most recently due to the constitutional changes, the MMDA has not been the Justice Ministry’s top legislative priority either.
However, things are looking to take a positive turn, as Ministry of Justice Additional Secretary (Legal) Piyumanthi Peiris told The Sunday Morning Brunch that reform has been proposed in the form of a cabinet paper, to stipulate the minimum age of marriage, include female Quazis who are judges under the said law, and seek the consent of the bride-to-be.
She said that it is important to note that all that has been done here is that it has been proposed and no conclusive changes have been made, adding that something, however, has been set in motion.
Equality and justice for all Muslims
According to the existing MMDA law, a female can be married off with only her father’s consent, and the proposed change seeks to include the bride’s consent as well. We then posed the question to those in the community on how these changes will be perceived by the Islamic community in the island, and the general consensus we picked up on was that many are in agreement that in accordance with the changes in our environment, things must change and such changes are only for the better.
The loudest voice demanding change has been of the Muslim Personal Law Reforms Action Group (MPLRAG), stressing that the MMDA must be reformed comprehensively to guarantee equality and justice for all Muslims, particularly Muslim women and girls, and that Muslim women have been the most affected by the MMDA and Quazi Court system. The mandate for reform is principally derived from their call for changes to the MMDA.
The MPLRAG is of the opinion that women’s experiences of the law, its implementation procedure, and their just expectations must inform and shape the reform agenda. While the substantive law must ensure equality and justice for all, procedural law must be sensitive to the needs of all members of the community, including women, adding that in the reform initiatives, Muslim women must have a place at the table and that the voices and demands should be heard and engaged with, as the key constituency that is most affected.
With regard to the proposed changes in the draft cabinet paper, the MPLRAG commented that they are encouraged that the Ministry of Justice is reporting progress on MMDA reforms and that the right of the bride to consent and to sign her own marriage certificate was always part of the comprehensive demands Muslim women have advocated for.
“We hope the single issues that have been raised in the recent news reports are examples of more comprehensive reforms to the MMDA and not piecemeal actions, which will not address the multiple ways in which Muslim women are discriminated against under the law and the Quazi Court system. We reiterate that Muslim women and girls as well as Muslim families have broadly suffered injustice and hardship for too long. These hardships are aggravated in the context of the pandemic,” they said, adding that law reform must strive to ensure the betterment of lives and conditions of those impacted, thereby bringing much-needed relief to Muslim women and children in Sri Lanka.
Most importantly, the MPLRAG shared that they also urge the Ministry of Justice to clearly inform the public about the process and timeline for amending the MMDA and expedite reforms with urgency.
With regard to these changes that have been proposed, we also reached out to the Sisterhood Initiative which works towards creating spaces for Muslim women in Sri Lanka. Head of Media and Communication Rashika Fazali shared with us their stance on the matter regarding the issue of obtaining the bride’s consent.
“Currently, there is no place in the marriage registration document for Muslims to prove the bride’s consent. Many Muslims argue that the bride will always be asked about her engagement, but there is no requirement in the MMDA to prove it. This goes against the principles of our religion as well, which requires the consent of the bride.”
As a grassroots organisation working with young Muslim women and girls, she said that the initiative sees this issue reflected in forced marriages and marriages taking place without the bride’s knowledge. This loophole in the law has made it possible for certain men to take advantage of the situation, silencing young women into marriage. They believe Muslim women and men are equal stakeholders in society. Human rights must be seen applied in the family first; therefore, a woman’s permission to enter into a marriage and start her own family life must be with her permission.
She added that they are hopeful that the Government has finally listened to the many activists around the country who have fought vigorously to amend the MMDA and urge decision-makers to follow through with the reforms.
There must be religious sensitivity
In taking a look at what the larger community feels about such changes, particularly considering that these laws are deeply intertwined with religion, we spoke to Umar Yoosuf, Imam from Dehiwala, who preaches in several mosques in and around Colombo, including the Bagathale Mosque in Kollupitiya, for his thoughts on the matter.
He said that he very much appreciates the fact that these discussions are being held. However, he said that when such reform is being considered with regard to laws of a specific community, there must be religious sensitivity. The proposed reforms are not permanent structures that cannot be changed; they are debatable and with respect, in accordance with the changing environment we live in, the changes must be made, he expressed.
Imam Yoosuf said that maybe 300-400 years ago, things were far more lenient, but over time, the environment we live in has changed and our laws must reflect these changes. He said that with regard to the minimum age of the bride to enter into a marriage, it is not mentioned in religious scripture of such limitations and so, interpretation must be done accordingly with respect to the sensitivities of the time.
With regard to the matter of the consent of the bride, he said: “I have always advocated for equality, and while it is customary to acquire the bride’s consent in practice, it is time to put such practice into paper, so that any misuse can be avoided and the laws will be put in place for assurance.”