Unequal Citizens: Muslim women’s struggle for justice and equality in Sri Lanka


Download PDF
  • '

Notes from the authors: About the study

As Muslim women working in the area of human rights and addressing gender-based violence, the primary motivation of the study is derived from the harsh realities experienced by the thousands of Muslim women in Sri Lanka. In our respective lines of work, we came across a number of instances of harrowing experiences of women under the purview of Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of 1951 and Quazi court system that was set up to administer it. There are innumerable cases due to the law itself, the manner in which the law is implemented and the culture that the law has allowed to flourish.

We were moved by the distressing and confounding stories of affected women who share our faith, and their long struggles for justice and equality, that we were motivated to design and undertake a study that would further the understanding of the complexities within the Muslim community with regard to MMDA and reforms.

Recently, the MMDA reform discussion has gained greater traction among the Muslim community beyond the narrow confines of activists and conservatives. This in tandem with constitutional reforms process that Sri Lanka is currently undergoing and the discourse about aspiring for a ‘rights-based constitution’ has raised some critical questions with regard to what it means to be minority Muslim women in Sri Lanka. What effect and impact does the MMDA law and its implementation have on the lives of women who are governed by MMDA in country? Despite wide recognition of the shortcomings in the law and in its implementation, and despite dedicated efforts by many, why has reforms to MMDA been elusive to date?

In answering the above questions the study is structured in the following manner: Part 1 of the study sets out to analyze some of the main practical implications of the parallel legal system of marriage and divorce for Muslim women and girls. Part 2 gives an overview of some of the efforts made by civil society organizations in supporting women in addressing these issues and in working towards MMDA reforms. Part 3 assesses the main barriers and challenges that have been limiting reforms of the MMDA from taking place in the past 25 years in Sri Lanka, despite multiple national level attempts. And based on these findings, Part 4 of this study ventures to make some recommendations on MMDA related reforms, and also frames it in light of the present constitutional reforms process.

This study is timely given an opportunity to articulate demands of ‘equality’, in a climate of heightened attention on minority rights and rights as citizens. Discussion around the need to subject all laws including personal laws to the test of equality and judicial review by repeal of Article 16 (1), has also become a rallying point for addressing the negative impact of MMDA particularly on women and girl children.

This study is principally driven by the desire to change the status quo that is so damaging and detrimental to the everyday life of many Muslim women. This is inherently turning the inquiry inwards, to the community we ourselves belong to. And it is in essence our contribution at this time to the struggles of Sri Lankan Muslim women to be recognized as equal citizens in the country, with full guarantee and protection of our rights. We are grateful for the women and men who had given their time and shared with us their perspectives. We dedicate this study to our courageous Sri Lankan sisters, those who are struggling against injustices in their lives and communities and those who have dedicated themselves, against enormous odds, to work towards a better deal for women.

Download PDF