Just as there is a controversial move in India to amend the Muslim Personal Law to exclude triple talaq, in Sri Lanka, there is an equally contentious call to amend the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA).
But there are differences. In India, call for change comes from the government, but in Sri Lanka, change is sought by Muslim women’s groups with the government and Muslim political parties approaching the issue gingerly, fearing a backlash from mullahs. A high-powered reform committee set up in 2009, is yet to submit its report for fear of being branded anti-Islamic.
While in India the key issue is triple talaq, in Sri Lanka, talaq has not been an issue because the Muslim law there is based on the liberal Indonesian model introduced by the Dutch in 1707. In fact, in Lanka, divorce is resorted to by women too, with the majority of cases being fasah, wherein annulment is sought by the wife with or without the husband’s consent.
The grounds on which fasah can be granted are many, including use of abusive language. The pressing issue in Lanka is age of marriage. While the statutory age of marriage is 18, a high percentage of Muslim families get their girls married off before they attain 18. In Puttalam and Batticaloa districts, the average age of marriage is between 14 and 17.
The age of marriage is going down in Kattankudy, an all-Muslim town known for its educational and economic achievements. In 2014, 14 per cent of marriages were with girls below 18. But in 2015 it went up to 22 per cent. The MMDA allows marriage of 12-yearolds.
The only restriction is that registration of marriages of girls below 12 has to have a prior inquiry and authorisation by a quazi. But in practice, marriage with a girl below 12 is valid even without a Quazi’s approval. However, despite the resistance, the chances of reform are bright in Sri Lanka, as Colombo is answerable to the UN Human Rights Council in March and September 2017.