Call to amend law sparks debate

lawA call to amend Muslim Personal Law in Sri Lanka has sparked a debate within the community, with some seeking change “from within” and others pushing for a broader constitutional reform.

The debate intensified with Law Minister Saga Ratnayaka’s recent remarks that amending the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act was part of international protocol required to obtain EU trade concessions, or the ‘Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus’ that Sri Lanka hopes to get. “The EU should not dictate how we need to reform our law,” said Rasmin, additional secretary of the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaath, whose members held a protest in Colombo following the Law Minister’s statement.

Observing that Muslim Personal Law needs to be reformed by leaders within the community, he said much of the confusion was because people misinterpret Muslim laws. “You see the same sort of confusion in India,” he told The Hindu on Friday.

Muslims constitute about 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, and are predominantly Tamil-speaking.

N.M. Ameen, President of Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said there is certainly a need to amend the marriages Act, but this has to be done in consultation with the Muslim religious leadership and the community.

There is a long-pending demand for reform of the Personal Law in Sri Lanka within the Muslim community, according to Vijay Nagaraj, head of research at Law and Society Trust, a Colombo-based legal research firm. A committee that was set up by the government in 2009 to look into the matter is yet to come out with any report.

Clearly, there is strong resistance to reforming Personal Law from other sections within the Muslim community, he said. “While one recognises that serious questions arise with the linking of trade and human rights, those citing GSP + as reason to resist reform only want to ensure that status quo prevails.”

A key amendment reformists want is to the MMDA clause that allows a girl of less than 12 years of age to be married, provided the Quazi, or Muslim law judge, permits. Gender consultant and researcher Hyshyama Hamin situated the debate within the larger constitutional reform process under way in Sri Lanka. According to her, the ongoing process to reform the Constitution has brought out important conversations about what it means to be a minority Muslim woman in Sri Lanka.

On the clause on minimum marriageable age, she said the minimum age clause should not be under any family law but has to be set by the State as one law for all. “It is very much a child rights issue,” she said.

Lawyer and activist Hasanah Cegu Isadeen said unlike in India, Muslim women in Sri Lanka were not asking for a uniform civil code. They wanted reform within the Act. “Our struggle is to bring in a broader interpretation of Islam.” (The Hindu)

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