On a humid morning in June 2006, a mosque in Colombo, Sri Lanka, buzzed with the activities of my nikah (Islamic marriage) ceremony. The men, I imagine, were huddled together around the marriage documents, with the local imam explaining the duties of the husband and wife.
I can only assume this – because I wasn’t there. The ceremony and the men did not require my presence.
I was, instead, at home, dusting a shelf in an attempt to quell my anxiety. An aunt was on my case about still being in my “home clothes.” My 22-year-old mind was reeling with questions. Why wasn’t I physically present at my own nikah? Why wasn’t I also signing the marriage documents? Why did being a woman mean that I was excluded from this important day in my life?
A few minutes later, I got a call: “You’re married!” My heart skipped a beat and dropped to the floor.
I was mired with feelings of nervousness and injustice I couldn’t fully comprehend at the time. Two years later, I finally understood when I went to collect my divorce papers and saw the words: “Divorce by mutual consent (initiated by wife)” on the form. Those three words – “initiated by wife” – evoked a powerful sense of autonomy, one that I felt for the first time in a two-year ordeal.
I had been denied agency by society and the family law that considered me a “minor” under the guardianship of men from birth to death, be they my father, grandfather, uncle, or husband. This law infantilized my existence – because I was born a woman.
The Sri Lankan Marriage and Divorce (Muslim) Act (MMDA) of 1951 does not mandate women be physically present or sign their own marriage documents. That role rests only with the wali (immediate male guardian) of the bride. If the bride does not have a wali, the local Quazi (judge administering Muslim family law) can sign as a wali. This is just the beginning of a string of discriminatory provisions and procedures in the MMDA.
The act does not have a minimum age of marriage for Muslims; it allows for polygamy without any conditions. The act also has a different, lengthy and disadvantageous process for women to obtain a divorce, and does not recognize and grant equitable financial rights for women at the time of divorce. The Muslim family laws of Muslim majority countries are far more progressive than the MMDA, which has remained unchanged since its codification during colonial times.
Change Begins Closer to Home
This is the first time I’ve told my story. But there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women like me. Fortunately, in Sri Lanka, there is a powerful national advocacy movement led by Muslim women to reform the MMDA. It began over 30 years ago with the Muslim Women’s Research and Advocacy Forum (MWRAF), which documented and published resources and worked with local community women and Quazis to push for reform within the Muslim communities of Sri Lanka.
In the past two decades, grassroots community groups all around the country have stepped up their advocacy efforts, mobilizing women’s groups and working with religious leaders. Their daily effort to support Muslim women in securing justice and redress before the local Quazis and providing them with counseling and economic support is inspirational. They do so amidst fierce opposition and regular attacks from conservative groups.
In the past six years, younger Muslim women’s groups, like Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group (MPLRAG), which I co-founded with like-minded Muslim women lawyers and researchers, have stepped up reform efforts significantly. Grounding our work in in-depth research on the impacts of the MMDA on women and girls, we expanded our advocacy to the national stage and online.
Notably the MPLRAG’s intergenerational “Let Her Sign” campaign in June 2021 saw Muslim women across age groups, ethnicities, and locations advocate for the right to sign their official marriage documents, and enter into marriage with consent, intent, and free will.
The cumulative efforts of all these groups have propelled us to a moment in which reform seems possible. The members of the Cabinet of Ministers and Members of Parliament (MPs) are currently considering an amendment bill. Should it pass, it will bring the MMDA a step closer to complying with the Sri Lankan Constitution, Islamic principles of justice and dignity, as well as international law and human rights standards. But it runs the risk of being heavily watered down due to pressure by conservative groups and MPs who uphold patriarchal ideologies of a woman’s role in the family.
From National Campaigns to Global Movements
This reform story is not unique to Sri Lanka. For decades, women’s groups have been mobilizing and advocating for an end to discrimination in family law and practices of marriage and family. We have seen powerful movements in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco, India, South Africa, Uganda, Nepal, and Egypt. These advocacy efforts have yielded long-overdue justice for women and girls.
Despite this progress, family laws and practices continue to be the most challenging to reform. Most are deeply entrenched in society’s notions of gendered roles of women and girls, with the “family” remaining the staunchest realm of patriarchal control.
Coupled with the fact that a majority of discriminatory family laws, particularly in the Global South, have roots in religion, culture, and tradition, these laws and practices are further embroiled in religious misinterpretations, identity politics, and communal myths and misconceptions fueling the reluctance, and opposition to reform. This has meant that family law reform is often low on the priority list of issues for broader feminist movements and the human rights system.
From the Personal to the Political to the Powerful
All these movements have one thing in common – change is led by those most affected by legal inequality. Their stories power the demand for legal reform. The leadership these groups have demonstrated while simultaneously challenging and overcoming difficult contextual and personal circumstances within their own families and communities is what grounds these reform efforts.
Marshall Ganz in his framework of “People, Power and Change” refers to a quote by first-century Jerusalem sage, Rabbi Hillel, a sentiment which Ganz says is rooted in creating leadership within movements:
If I am not for myself, who am I?
When I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
These questions highlight the crucial connections in movement-building – between the self and the community, the personal and the political, the historical and the immediate, and raise the sense of urgency for an issue(s) to be resolved.
My own commitment to family law and advocacy movements to reform these laws stems from my search for the autonomy I never had.
In the not-too-distant future is a Sri Lanka where Muslim women and girls will be allowed to sign their marriage documents and enter marriage as equal partners. They will be present during their nikah ceremony and take accountability and practice agency for their own decision to marry the person of their choice.
We are fighting for a future where family laws will not render women as second-class citizens, but citizens worthy of equality, dignity and justice. Our own stories and our movements will make this happen.