Made in heaven, bound by law | Daily News
Cabinet nod to amend Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act:

Made in heaven, bound by law

On Tuesday the Cabinet approved long awaited reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), following the presentation of a white paper drafted by Muslim ministers and members of parliament.

After multiple failed attempts to make amendments to the MMDA over the last three decades, many have welcomed these reforms as a step towards expanding the rights of Muslim women and girls in Sri Lanka.

Attorney-at-Law and women’s rights activist Nimalka Fernando stated “I see this as a first step forward, one we should advance further. The constitution guarantees equal rights to women, but the content of the personal laws are such that they do not provide Muslim women the enjoyment of these rights. Every religion promotes the dignity of the human being and we welcome steps being taken to provide more freedoms to Muslim women.”

Key aspects

Some key aspects of this reform include a stipulation that the consent of the bride is mandatory for a marriage, a precondition which was glaringly absent in the past. Furthermore, changes have been made regarding polygamy, with women now able to file for divorce if a man marries another woman without her consent. Indeed, with regard to divorce, a number of changes have been made which attempt to redress the imbalance of power in this area.

Justice Saleem Marsoof the head of a committee which provided two sets of recommendations for the reform of the MMDA, noted, “We have narrowed the gender gap with regard to the ability to be granted divorces. For instance, we have made it so that a man who divorces a woman will have to provide compensation, this will prevent the number of unreasonable divorces initiated by men.”

A significant change has also been implemented with regard to the minimum age for marriage. Marsoof notes that “The minimum age is now 18 years, with exceptions for 16 to 18 year olds in exceptional circumstances where it is in the best interests of the child.”

However, the reforms have not been met with universal enthusiasm amongst women’s rights activists in the country. Many are disappointed by the failure to implement the more progressive changes initially put forward by Muslim MPs, with the current reforms being seen as a watered-down compromise, appeasing conservative groups such as the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) who had objected to earlier proposals.

Hyshyama Hamin, a researcher and activist with the Muslim Personal Law Reforms Action Group, notes that the amendments to the MMDA passed by the Cabinet represent piecemeal reforms which do not go far enough to with regard to addressing the issues faced by Muslim women.

Progressive reforms

“We are disappointed that the Cabinet members have approved this reform without considering to what extent they actually solve the issues on the ground,” Hamin notes, “Many of the amendments fail to address the underlying issues, for instance there remain exceptions for 16 and 17 year olds, however it is 16 and 17 year olds who are the most affected (by early marriages). Having an exception will not solve the problem.”

“Furthermore, women are still prevented from being Quazis (judges in the Quazi court), this represents a fundamental rights violation which has been perpetuated by the Cabinet ministers. We’re disappointed that these reforms were passed without being scrutinized.”

Many proponents of the current set of reforms agree with the sentiment that more needs to be done.

However, they argue that when making changes of such cultural significance, change must be achieved slowly to avoid running the risk of reforms being rejected wholesale.

Justice Marsoof notes “We have achieved a great deal of progress, and I would regard this as the first stage in a process of reform. Our community is still a very conservative one, these progressive reforms cannot be done all in one stage. We have to do this in a structured way that people can accept.”


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