Women Bound to Muslim Law in Sri Lanka Seek Changes to End Discrimination


Article Highlights

Zeenathul Razeena Ismail, 37, center in black, and her three children live with her mother-in-law, left, in Colombo. Even though her husband has abandoned them and has a second wife, Ismail says that she will not file for divorce as she fears Muslim Law will discriminate against her. Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

Muslims in Sri Lanka are obligated to comply with Muslim Law and a corresponding court system when it comes to marriage, inheritances and other personal matters, but women there say that system is discriminatory. Proposed changes to that law could end discrimination and give Muslim women a way out of abusive relationships.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Zeenathul Razeena Ismail, 37, was 16 years old when she was married.

It was not a forced marriage. Ismail fell in love with her seaman husband when she first met him, but the marriage was arranged by the two families.

“My father signed the marriage register as required by the Muslim law,” Ismail says.

Ismail says her in-laws weren’t supportive of education, so she dropped out of school after the wedding. She was 17 years old when her son was born. Now, she also has two daughters.

Within a few years, Ismail says she saw that her husband was a spendthrift and a womanizer. Her family turned her out of their house because her husband’s behavior brought them shame, and she moved to Colombo to live with her in-laws.

“When his absence from home became longer, on enquiry I found that he had got married to another woman and was living away from us,” Ismail says.

Under Sri Lanka’s Muslim law, polygamy is allowed, but women who no longer live with their husbands aren’t guaranteed any type of support.

I’m scared that I may lose custody of my children. We are uneducated and don’t know much about the Muslim law.

But Ismail says her husband did not provide for her or the children. He visited sporadically, and sent money infrequently. Ismail says she supported her children by making food parcels to sell in shops and working as a maid.

Ismail has not filed for divorce, and says she is unlikely to ever do so. She believes the law which governs the Muslim community in Sri Lanka would favor her husband.

“I’m scared that I may lose custody of my children,” she says. “We are uneducated and don’t know much about the Muslim law.”

As a Muslim, Ismail is obligated to live within the codes of Sri Lanka’s Muslim law. Since she was married under Muslim law, she must also divorce under Muslim law.

A Muslim Personal Law Reforms Committee set up by the government in 2009 is finalizing recommendations to changes to that law with respect to women, and women’s activists are pressuring that committee to complete those recommendations this year, as Sri Lankan leaders are drafting a new constitution.

The recommendations being discussed include giving Muslim brides the right to sign the marriage register, setting a minimum marriageable age, equal access to divorce and the right to maintenance, and the introduction of female judges in the Quazi courts, which implement Muslim law, according to activists familiar with the proposals.

I hope this would change soon to give us freedom and sustenance.

Sri Lanka has a mixed legal system, with common laws applying to all citizens, as well as three types of personal law governing three religious or demographic groups: the Muslim law applies to all Muslims, while the Thesawalamai applies to Tamil people with origins in the Northern Province, and the Kandyan law applies to all Sinhalese of Kandyan regional ancestry.

The Muslim law is different from the strict Shariah, or Islamic law, but it contains aspects of those laws. In addition to legislation regarding marriage and divorce, other sections of Muslim law include legislation related to inheritance practices and how mosques should operate.

The committee discussed its recommendations with representatives of Muslim organizations and other stakeholders, says Jezima Ismail, a member of the committee and a former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.

The reforms, if enacted, will have a significant impact on Muslim women’s rights in Sri Lanka, Jezima Ismail says.

“Women being heads of households have strength of character, knowledge, dignity, self-respect and a foundation built on her nurturing culture,” she says. “They are different to men and need to be given equity in human rights, fairness and justice.”

The committee is close to reaching agreement on important changes to the law, she adds.

One change is the introduction of a minimum age of marriage for Muslim women, she says. The Muslim law does not specify any minimum age of marriage. Girls under the age of 12 need only special permission to marry.

Women being heads of households have strength of character, knowledge, dignity, self-respect and a foundation built on her nurturing culture. They are different to men and need to be given equity in human rights, fairness and justice.

The minimum age of marriage for all other Sri Lankans is 18. Activists prefer that the age for Muslim women to be 18, too, Jezima Ismail says, but the committee agreed to a minimum age of 16.

Hyshyama Hamin, a consultant with a specialty in gender issues, says a minimum age is imperative.

“The law needs to be amended to raise the age of marriage as both a preventive and protective measure against early marriage,” she says.

But not everyone agrees.

“Today girls and boys are well aware of sex and marriage,” says Mohamed Ibrahim Abdul Jabbar, a member of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the highest decision-making body on Islamic religious matters in the country, in a phone interview.

If boys and girls are aware of sex and marriage, he says, then they’re not too young to be married.

“Therefore we must adhere to what is said in the Shariah, Islamic law, and not make any changes in the age of marriage,” he says.

The committee also agrees that a bride should have the right to sign the marriage register, indicating her consent to the marriage, Jezima Ismail says.

The marriage registration form under Muslim law does not have a place for the bride’s signature, but instead has a place for a male guardian of the bride to sign in consent of the marriage, Hamin says.

“The system under Muslim family law restricts a woman from being able to fully decide on her own and make her own life choice,” Hamin says.

In the current law, in instances when women do not have a male guardian, a Quazi, a family court judge under Muslim law, serves as the bride’s guardian, she says.

“It is rather ridiculous that the permission of a complete stranger who is a Quazi is needed for a woman to marry, just because he is male!” Hamin says.

Another important recommendation is equal rights for women to apply for and receive a divorce.

“A man does not require a reason to divorce his wife and is able to engage in polygamy according to the Muslim law,” Hamin says.

This makes women vulnerable, she says.

Zeenathul Ismail agrees.

“Since the men are permitted to remarry, we are suppressed and feel helpless,” she says.

Her husband lives with his second wife, and did not obtain permission from her for the second marriage, she says.

Divorce among Muslims is on the rise in the area, says Umarlebbe Abdul Marsook, the Quazi for Colombo North, a section of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

“The increase in application for divorce is growing day by day, and on average I receive 20 new cases monthly,” he says.

Hamin and other women’s rights activists are pushing to allow women to be Quazis. That’s the committee’s fourth recommendation.

“Currently, Quazis are those men who are community heads respected in their areas,” says Jezima Ismail. “But the need to appoint women is important as they would find it easy to relate their grievances to a woman.”

But some Muslims don’t want to be under the rule of a woman, she says.

“Some say it’s below dignity for a man to go to a woman Quazi, likewise women feel the same,” she says.

She points out that other Asian countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, have female Quazis. Sri Lanka should follow their lead, Jezima Ismail says.

A Quazi is appointed by the Board of Quazis, which has been set up by the Judicial Service Commission. According to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, any Muslim male of good character and position can be a Quazi and there are no educational or other qualifications required.

Marsook, the Quazi for Colombo North, isn’t opposed to female Quazis, but he says all of Sri Lanka’s 65 Quazis need better training. The Muslim community needs counselling facilities to deal with the rising number of divorce cases, he says.

Jezima Ismail says the time to act for Muslim women’s rights in Sri Lanka is now. She is confident the committee will finalise their recommendations and present to the cabinet of ministers for submission to the country’s parliament, as part of the constitutional reforms.

“We have struggled for these reforms under various commissions for the last 20 years and we have an opportunity now to press for reforms,” she says.

Unless the law is changed, Zeenathul Razeena Ismail, the woman whose husband left her and took another wife, says she’s helpless.

“I hope this will change soon to give us freedom and sustenance,” she says.



Zeenathul Razeena Ismail and Jezima Ismail are not related.

Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ, translated one interview each from Malay, Sinhala and Tamil.