Colombo, November 4 (The New Indian Express): Representatives of the Sri Lanka Jamaithul Ulema, Muslim intellectuals and members of the government-appointed committee on Muslim personal law reform, are to meet for two days beginning Friday, to discuss reform of the controversial Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951.
The initiator of the move, Asad Sally, who heads of the Desiya Aikkya Munnani (DAM) said that since the issue involves aspects of the inviolable Sharia law, it has to be considered very carefully by the best minds in the Muslim community.
Reform of the MMDA, especially in respect of the age of marriage and appointment of female Quazis has been under discussion from 2009 onwards, when the then Justice Minister, Milinda Moragoda, set up a committee under retired Justice Saleem Marsoof to go into the question and suggest remedies. But the Marsoof panel is yet to submit its report.
“ Justice Marsoof has promised to circulate the report among the members of the committee formed by DAM so that they can come to an informed decision,” Sally told Express.
Urgency in the matter arose after the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government announced that the MMDA has to be in line with international human rights covenants so that Sri Lanka is able to get the European Union’s trade concessions under the GSP-Plus scheme for developing countries.
Among the most sensitive issues to be resolved is the permission given by the MMDA for 12 year old girls to be married off. While Muslim women’s organizations are seeking abolition of this and want the age of marriage fixed at the national level of 18, Muslim clerics and politicians either insist that the Sharia law is inviolable or any decision to raise the age of marriage should be taken only by the Muslim community.
“We will not allow the law to be changed only to please the EU to get trade concessions. Further, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Police Minister Sagala Ratnayake were wrong when they claimed reform of MMDA is necessary for getting the EU concessions. The EU’s 15 conditions to get the concessions does not include reform of MMDA. The EU’s inspection team headed by Jean Lambert did not mention it as a condition,” Sally said.
“At any rate, Western democracies have no right to ask for raising the age of marriage when in the US, four states allow marriage of girls as young as 12,” Sally added.
A report in The Independent of UK dated Mar 9, 2016, says that law makers in America are battling to overturn state laws which stipulate that children as young as 12 can be married.
“In Virginia, it is officially still legal for girls as young as 12 or 13 to be brought to a courthouse with evidence of a pregnancy and wed,” the paper said.
“In Maryland and New York, 3,853 minors were married between 2000 and 2010, according to State Health Department data published in the New York Times. In Virginia itself, according to state health statistics, more than 4,500 minors were married between 2000 and 2013, including about 220 who were 15 or younger,” the paper further said.
In the context of internal and external pressures from “changers” and “no changers”, the committees working on sensitive Sharia issues like the age of marriage, will have a tough time arriving at a compromise between the conservatives’ 12 years rule, to the modernists’ 18 years rule.
Sally said that the clerics might agree to 16 years as the cut off age, although how to do this without violating the Sharia remains a challenge.
The liberals however point out that many Muslim countries have raised the age of marriage to be on par with modern ideas and these models could be adopted.
“For example, the MMDA does not allow Triple Talaq because it was copied from the progressive Indonesia law,” a liberal Muslim pointed out.