MMDA - Activists lament piecemeal solution | Sunday Observer

MMDA - Activists lament piecemeal solution

25 August, 2019

While welcoming the move of the Cabinet of Ministers to approve the joint proposal of amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), presented by Minister of Post, Postal Services and Muslim Religious Affairs, M H Abdul Haleem and Minister of Justice and Prison Reforms Minister Thalatha Athukorale, Muslim Women activists and Human Rights activists lamented that it is a piecemeal solution and does not address the ‘lived realities’ of the Muslim women affected by the MMDA.

It is acknowledged that MMDA reform is progressing, and the fact that the Cabinet ministers are engaging with the much needed for reforms is a positive step. This momentum has been shadowed by the fact that the reforms proposed are not adequately addressing the issues, noted a statement from the Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group (MPLRAG) a collective of women’s groups and activists engaged in MMDA reforms. “Appeals to MPs from women’s organisations to improve on the decisions of July 11, have gone unheard. It is devastating that pressure and threats from conservative community groups against the reforms have triumphed over principles of equality and justice and basic fundamental rights for Muslim women. It is utterly disappointing that Muslim MPs have backtracked on some of the previous progressive positions of July 11,” it stated.


The women’s groups called for 12 points of reforms, based on the ‘lived realities’ of women throughout the island. They demanded for the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years without exception; women to be eligible for the position of Quazis, Members of the Board of Quazis, Marriage Registrars and Assessors (jurors); MMDA to be applied uniformly to all Muslims without causing disadvantage based on sect or madhab; women to sign/thumb print the marriage contract; autonomy for adult Muslim women in the decision of marriage without the permission of male guardian or Quazi; abolishing polygamy or in the alternative the consent of existing wife/wives and financial capacity to maintain multiple families as a condition; equal divorce rights to men and women; mandatory registration; declaring dowry as illegal; the provision for Muslim couples to draw up the marriage contract before marriage; revising the Quazi court system to ensure an improved system of justice accessible to both women and men and the inclusion of the option for Muslims to marry under the General Marriage Registration Ordinance (GMRO).

The proposed reforms have failed to address four vital concerns of the Muslim women, Human Rights and Women’s Rights activist Shreen Abdul Saroor told Sunday Observer. While exceptions are provided to the minimum age of marriage, the guardianship is not lifted and an adult woman cannot marry on her own but still needs the permission of a male guardian or a Quazi.

Further, the draft reforms approved by the Cabinet of Ministers does not recognise the women’s fundamental rights to be treated equally by being appointed as Quazi and still does not include the option for the Muslim community, whether they be men or women to register their marriage under the GMRO. Moreover, one reform is more detrimental in restricting people to follow a particular sect, or school of thought, she said.

The paper approved by the Cabinet of Ministers while raising the minimum age of marriage to 18 years, provides an exception for marriage between 16 to 18 years with the approval of the Quazi. Women’s groups argue that “this would not solve the main issue pertaining to child marriage” within the community. According MPLRAG, most underage marriages take place between the ages 16 to 18 and in some districts it is as high as 80 to 100 percent. In addition the draft provides a clause “It shall be an offence if a marriage is solemnised without the permission of the Qazi or below 16 years.” However, this leaves room for much interpretation and may also allow for cohabiting with an underage female, without the solemnisation of marriage. Where the women’s groups have requested for both the registration and the Nikah (ceremony) mandatory to validate a marriage, the approved draft only requires both to be held at the same time. While non-registration is recognised as a punishable offence; on the positive side it acknowledged the rights of the children from an unregistered marriage. However, this again is open to interpretation.


Most misogynic are the refusal to recognise women’s equal right to be Quazis and to hold other positions in the Quazi courts. Furthering this is the requirement of permission from a male ‘wali’ (guardian) or Quazi for adult women to get married. Another change which is detrimental to women as well as children is bringing maintenance and custody under the jurisdiction of the Quazi courts.

In essence, it could be argued that the proposed reforms bring no change in the ‘lived realities’ of Muslim women throughout the country. These five points were crucial to Muslim women as they were the very areas where women and children faced discrimination and torment at the all male Quazi courts under the prevailing MMDA. Many case studies, published and unpublished is ample proof for same.