ACJU clerics want marriage reform delayed | Sunday Observer

ACJU clerics want marriage reform delayed

21 July, 2019
Muslim women want reforms (File photo)
Muslim women want reforms (File photo)

After nine long years in the making, the reform of the social law of the Muslim community, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), had looked set to proceed toward a 21st century version that meets the community’s needs today. But, it seems not so.

Even as a carefully formulated set of reform proposals has emerged for finalisation by the community and preparation for legislation, the community’s religious leadership has, again, demanded a stay, insisting on still more debate and deliberation before a new law is passed.

In yet another frustratingly repetitive move, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), the Islamic community’s supreme religious body, has written to Muslim Parliamentarians asking them to postpone the submission of the finalised reform proposals to the Cabinet. The Islamic teachers have moved to block the next step to be taken by the Muslim MPs’ caucus.

Delay request

In a letter sent out last Thursday to the Muslim parliamentarians requesting a delay, the ACJU claimed that “there are grave religious concerns on the proposals...” The ACJU says: “We kindly request an urgent meeting to be called with us to discuss the relevant matters and to postpone submitting the proposals to the Cabinet until a proper amicable decision is reached, for the sake of Allah.”

Convenor of the Muslim MPs’ caucus, former minister and veteran politician A. H. M. Fowzie, told the Sunday Observer that the caucus would delay their reform submission to the Cabinet in order to have a further discussion with the ACJU.

It was on July 12, just the previous week, that a leading Muslim parliamentarian, Mohamed Faiszer Musthapha, PC, announced that a few amendments to the MMDA had been unanimously agreed on by the Muslim parliamentarians after discussions. The amendments so agreed upon were: to raise the legal age of marriage for both the bride and the groom to 18 years of age; to require the bride to sign the register of marriage (to signify her consent); to upgrade the qualifications of Quazis to that of Attorney-at-Law; and, to allow for women to be Quazis.

These few amendments that had reached consensus are part of a long list of amendments proposed by the Justice Salim Marsoof Committee after those long years of debate and deliberations.

The existing MMDA enacted in 1951 has been left behind by decades of social progress in the whole country that has brought Sri Lankan society into the 21st Century, with the Muslim community as part of that progress. The 1951 law is now in sharp contrast with the needs and interests of today’s Sri Lankan Muslim community.

According to the prevailing law (MMDA), the legal age for marriage is 12 years for the bride. Making matters even worse, if the bride is younger than 12 years, the marriage could still be registered if the Quazi in the area authorises it (Section 23). The presence of the bride is not a necessity in registering a Muslim marriage according to the MMDA of 1951. It is only the groom and the Wali (guardian – usually the father or the paternal grandfather) of the bride who have to sign the documents (Section 19.1).

The Quazis

Where Quazis are concerned “any male Muslim of good character and position and of suitable attainments to be a Quazi” could be appointed (Section 12.1), which description is patently vague.

According to modern social standards, the MMDA could be regarded as a patriarchal law, with men retaining control over the marital destinies of all. Critics would note elements of misogyny in this type of anachronistic framework.

Many case studies of researchers and activists who have been working with Muslim women and girls throughout the country in recent decades, point out that the MMDA, instead of serving the interests of ‘Justice’ (a core theme of Islam), provide enough and more convenient loopholes for men to victimise Muslim women.

For example, the unequal divorce provisions in the MMDA make it extremely difficult for a woman to annul an abusive marriage, as against in the case of a man divorcing a woman, for her and the children to receive maintenance. The ACJU, which is an all-male body, has seemingly been dragging its feet on MMDA reforms from the very onset of the reform initiative.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, human rights activist and social worker Shreen Saroor pointed out that it is Muslim women and girls who are mostly affected by this law, which she described as discriminatory. The ACJU had no business to interfere with women’s and children’s basic rights, she asserted.

“It is the responsibility of the State to ensure every citizen is treated equally before the law. The ACJU has nothing to do with law-making or law reform. It is the elected members of Parliament who have to decide that. It is also ironic that a group of men who self-nominated themselves as guardians of the Muslim community, now have the impudence to threaten nine elected MPs’, (many of whom are senior politicians) to veto the decision they made. It is thuggery and, in this instance, is equal to any extremists who try to destabilize the State, and try to run the country by promoting racism. They are holding a community to ransom in the name of a religion that promotes equity,” Saroor said.

Meanwhile, concerned citizens, Muslim women’s groups and activists who had been clamouring for MMDA reform for over three decades, questioned the sincerity of the sudden move by Muslim parliamentarians to enact reform.

Rights activists and women’s groups, while welcoming the agreement on reform by Muslim parliamentarians, said they were ‘cautiously encouraged’. They also held warned that the current proposals are a “piecemeal reform” and do not adequately address the lived realities of Muslim girls and women.

“We are also deeply disappointed and apprehensive that this selective approach towards reform overlooks many crucial concerns in the MMDA. Therefore, we strongly call for a comprehensive solution. All demands of Muslim women must be taken into account, given due consideration and then addressed urgently,” the Muslim Personal Law Reforms Action Group (MPLRAG) said issuing a statement. (See page 19 for the full statement of the MPLRAG).

Senior Lawyer, Faais Ameer, speaking to the Sunday Observer, agreed that the proposed reforms fall short of addressing the real issues of Muslim women. “This is not a sincere effort towards giving ear to the reform cry of the Muslim women. This is due to the collective pressure and exposure that was building up in the country and internationally - conceding to some reforms to safeguard the existing MMDA,” he observed.


Ameer pointed out that many issues - such as polygamy and, the sects of Islam had not been taken into consideration therein.

Saroor also agreed that addressing polygamy is a ‘must’ in MMDA reforms. “Because of polygamy there are many issues.

Women and children suffer the most. In Muslim majority countries such as Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan and Tunisia, polygamy is prohibited and in countries such as Indonesia, Algeria and Iraq only conditional polygamy is permitted,” she noted.

The agreed amendments to the MMDA are to be enacted in a backdrop of a very different discourse now being promoted by certain extremist factions of the country in the aftermath of the Easter attacks. This discourse promotes the abolition of all legislation pertaining to religious or racial communities and the establishment of a single common law for all citizens.

Further, the Government has made pledges to the UN and other international bodies as well as donor countries to raise the minimum age of marriage of Muslim girls from 12 years to 18 years. This is also seen as part of social measures to prevent the spread of extremist social radicalism.

The Sunday Observer reliably learns that the PM requested consultations with Muslim women’s groups on MMDA reforms. Thereafter, a comprehensive reform proposal had been handed over to M.H.A. Haleem, Minister of Muslim Religious Affairs & Posts.