Interviews

Personal laws not discriminatory but need reform: Jezima Ismail

By Skandha Gunasekara

Educationist and human rights activist Deshabandu Jezima Ismail stated that while personal laws had not caused discrimination and inequality among communities, such laws needed reform.

Below are excerpts of Ismail’s interview with The Sunday Morning:

Have the individual laws for different communities in Sri Lanka benefited the country?

I don’t know if it has benefited the country in that kind of manner but I suppose it has been part of the traditions of the communities and is only a personal law in a small arena.

If you take the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), it’s only for marriage and divorce. I don’t see any benefit to the country as such.

Shouldn’t common law be above other personal laws for equality among communities?

Did the personal laws contribute to any sort of discrimination or differences in the communities? I don’t think so. It just conveys a few provisions. When I talk about the Muslim law, some of it isn’t with the equity and principles of justice enunciated in the Quran. That’s why the Muslims wanted to have reform in the law.

Within the community, there were problems with the MMDA and that it doesn’t correspond to the justice equity principle in the Quran, and there were some things that had to be changed. Also, all the differences in the reforms came from within the community unfortunately.

Should personal laws be scrapped altogether?

That definitely has to come from within the communities, whether it’s the Kandyan, Thesawalamai, or Muslim laws. I wonder whether a law can be imposed by the State.

Discussion and dialogue has to happen within the community. Otherwise, it would be an imposition on the freedom of the community and the citizens of the country.

How could we go about making common law supreme to personal laws, in your view?

I really don’t know whether common law would bring any kind of difference of equality, because what I can see is that within the personal laws of the country, there are features that have to be altered but they have to be first altered by the community and only done on a state basis.

A common law should work but after much dialogue and discussion. I feel that the personal laws definitely haven’t brought out a reason for inequality, but at the same time, these personal laws, especially with the Muslim community, have to change in parts in order to bring uphold the principles of justice and equity, and that is very important in a multi-communal, pluralistic country.

What examples can we take from other countries when introducing an inclusive common law?

I wouldn’t know as I’m not quite sure about the common law in other countries and I can’t speak offhand. I don’t know enough to comment on this question but I know common law in many countries has worked very well. However, I wouldn’t be able to comment specifically on it as I’m not very familiar with it. I’m not proficient in that area.