2019 Aug 8
Muslims Members of Parliament and Ministers are scheduled to hold another round of discussions with the All Ceylon Jammithul Ulema (ACJU) in an attempt to reach a consensus over the proposed amendments to the infamous Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA).
The MPs in their recent statement prior to these meetings outlined important reformations to the traditional MMDA laws which sprung from decades of pressure from women organizations and recently the combating Islamic extremism rhetoric adopted by the Prime Minister post Easter Attack.
One of the most contested issues in the debate around reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) has been with regard to increasing the minimum age of marriage for Muslims. While legal reforms in 1995 increased the minimum age of marriage to 18 years for all citizens except Muslims, the MMDA does not stipulate an age of marriage. The reformation proposed by the Muslim MPs include the Marriage age to be increased to 18 years of age.
Contrary to popular belief, the minimum age at which a Muslim girl or boy can get married under the current MMDA regulations is not 12 years; as per Section 23 of the Act, a girl below 12 can be given in marriage with the authorisation of a Quazi judge. Hence, the minimum age of marriage for Sri Lankan Muslims is technically zero.
Those who are not in favor of the MMDA stipulating a minimum age of marriage give reasons mostly based on religious interpretations (and misinterpretations) of religious text and Hadith (practices of the Prophet Muhammed).
An ACJU document provided to the government cited statistics that in Ampara district between 2011 and 2016 – 870 marriage involving 13-18 year olds had taken place, including eight 13-years olds and thirty six 14-year olds. While the document indicated that this number is low, it is actually very strong evidence against those who say that only one or two cases occur around the country. This figure also does not reflect the non-registered marriages, which according to community-level activists is highly prevalent.
Furthermore, the 2018 report of the 2009 Committee Appointed to Suggest Amendments to the MMDA contains statistics of registered marriages with brides below 18 years for many districts around the country. This data shows the occurrence of marriages of girls as young as 12 even in districts like Colombo in 2014.
In terms of the reformations to Polygamy, these reformations hope to ensure adequate provisions for all the wives and children; if they are not informed or properly compensated, or if the marriage is brought about without the Quazis permission it could be punishable by imprisonment and the marriage invalidated. If not agreed to, the wife can seek divorce and redress on the matter.
Even though the ACJU has agreed on conditional polygamy, they are against compulsory registration of marriage, another recommendation of reformation put forward by the MPs and the report submitted last year. Currently, many women’s groups have recorded complex issues stemming from non-registration of Muslim marriages. If the marriage is not registered, there is no way to count how many times a Muslim man has married.
Shreen Abdul Saroor a human rights activist and patron of Mannar Women’s Development Federation and founder member of Women’s Action Network shares insights on the above point with cases she witnesses in her extensive work on these matters.
She says that men have used this opportunity and married more than 4 women. In one specific case, the man had 13 wives – a veritable brothel. She has recorded about 658 cases of unregistered marriages this year alone (many are second or third marriages). Without a valid marriage certificate, these wives are unable get birth certificates for their children, send their children to school, or demand child maintenance when their husbands abandon them or wed other women.
Another pertinent issue tackled by the recommendations would be the reformations of the Quazi Court structure. The Quazi court will see a bit of swaying from its usual hit and miss framework with the introduction of female representations in the system and tweaking of biased laws created to repress women especially,
The ACJU in the last 10 years has spread its tentacles into the Qazi court structure. By articulating that this law needs to be interpreted within a Sharia/Islamic framework, they have managed to get their members appointed as Qazis in many areas. In doing so their grip on the Muslim community can be further tightened and therefore reflects a rigid draconian interpretation of Islam.
The reformations put forward specifies that the Quazis jurisdiction will be tied up with the court system and bring it under the jurisdiction of District Courts. Furthermore the archaic law of a Male Wali signing a woman off instead of the women themselves being able to sign has been struck down to include both the Male Wali and the bride.
The one reformation that gives us true hope is the changing landscape of the role of women by suggesting adequate representation of females in the MMDA advisory board and the appointment of women as registrar/Quazis.
At least, with growing representation, the further concerns of women could be taken into consideration and inherent cultural and patriarchal biases and laws could be rectified in due course.
These suggestions are only scratching the surface of the reforms truly needed for this law and even if the laws are slightly tweaked it does leave a lot of wiggle room for true perpetrators of human rights to slip through.