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#LetHerSign – the case for reforming the MMDA!

#LetHerSign – the case for reforming the MMDA!

25 Jun 2023 | By Nuskiya Nasar

Attorney at Law Ermiza Tegal

Under the Sri Lankan Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), Muslim women are prevented from signing their own marriage documents – the Marriage Declaration Form and the Marriage Register. 

This restriction placed on Muslim women when it comes to attesting their own marriages has been the frequently debated this past few years, with many movements to review the MMDA being formed in response.

 #LetHerSign is one such Muslim-women-led campaign advocating for the right of Sri Lankan Muslim women to have full autonomy to enter into marriage in their own capacity and free will. 

It also seeks to highlight the ways in which Muslim women can be treated as unequal citizens under the MMDA in every aspect of marriage, beginning from being unable to sign some of the most important documents of their lives, to unfair and unjust divorce procedures. 

Despite the continuous advocacy of many Muslim women across the nation to date, the MMDA remains unreformed. However, numerous young Muslim women have taken a firm stance on their desire to sign their marriage contract, even though the contract doesn’t provide a separate place for them to do so. One such woman is Shamla Naleer.

A place at the table to sign

Hailing from a family with a conservative background, Shamla Naleer admits to being fortunate enough to belong to a household that values the importance of learning and unlearning. 

“My parents, who have deeply instilled in me the significance of seeking knowledge, have fostered my curiosity and ignited a thirst for learning in all aspects of life,” Shamla shared with The Sunday Morning Brunch.

Since the day Shamla became aware of the fact that Muslim women were unable to sign their own Nikkah papers, she embarked on a journey of learning. In 2020, she actively participated in the #LetHerSign campaign, which served as a platform to educate herself on the ways she could ensure her ability to sign her own marriage documents.

When Shamla met her now husband and engaged in a conversation about the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) and the importance of her having the opportunity to sign the Nikkah papers, he didn’t hesitate or question her request; instead, he responded: “You will sign your Nikkah papers and I will make sure of it,” revealed Shamla. 

However, the couple did encounter challenges when it came to convincing the Registrar, which is why, even during the wedding ceremony, Shamla’s father kept on providing constant reassurance that she would indeed be given the opportunity to sign the papers. When the moment finally arrived for her to affix her signature, she was overcome with elation. 

“It was a moment I had dreamt about and fought for, tirelessly advocating for years. The significance of the moment washed over me, solidifying the realisation that I had made a wholehearted decision and was now officially married!” explained Shamla about the priceless moment that will forever hold a special place in her heart – her marriage with her consent through her very own signature!

The significance of signing your own marriage contract

Shamla explained that personally, signing her Nikkah papers had nothing to do with her not trusting her father’s decisions, but there were many girls out there who actually couldn’t trust their fathers to make the right choices for them.

Some fathers selfishly marry off their daughters without their consent or knowledge, taking advantage of the fact that the current law doesn’t require the bride’s signature. By signing her papers, she wanted to inspire other girls to stand up for their rights and have the ability to agree to their own marriages, a right given to them by Allah. 

“My goal was to challenge the existing norms and create a fairer and more empowering society, where girls are respected, their voices are heard, and they have control over their own lives,” shared Shamla in terms of why she was stubborn in wanting to sign although not many women made an issue about it.

Although there is no designated space for a girl to sign her Nikkah papers, it is possible to request the registrar to allocate a specific area for the bride’s signature. This can be done by writing “bride” at the bottom of the sheet or on the back.

In Shamla’s case, she chose to sign her papers right next to her Wali (the bride’s lawful guardian), who was her father.

The legality of signing 

Shamla sharing pictures of herself signing her marriage contract on social media created a stir. Numerous individuals, both male and female, left hateful comments, exposing the controversy surrounding the issue of Muslim women advocating to sign such contracts.

The Sunday Morning Brunch reached out to  Attorney-at-Law Ermiza Tegal to get her insights on the legal side of this matter since she was actively involved in working with the MMDA, aiming to bring about reformation.

Tegal gave us some context into the reforms to the MMDA that have been previously proposed. In simple terms, the report of the committee appointed by the Ministry of Justice in 2020 has recommended a few things:

  • The introduction of a minimum age of marriage
  • The bride signing the marriage registration documents
  • Marriage contracts be recognised
  • Fair recovery of dowry, kaikuli, and matrimonial property
  • Procedures for mutual divorce (mubarat), wife-initiated divorce without reasons (khula), and alimony (mata’a) be recognised and maintenance orders to take relevant criteria into consideration
  • All official positions under the MMDA be accessible to women and men

The report also proposes a system of administering the law that has an informal community-based mediation component and a formal court forum for contested matters.

“I think the vision must be for Sri Lanka to move towards dedicated family courts so that the formal systems are also sensitive, efficient, and less acrimonious,” Ermiza told The Sunday Morning Brunch.

The delay in implementing reforms

Since the report, the Ministry of Justice has worked on a draft law. 

Ermiza admitted that in her own reading, any division or resistance was that there were interests based assertion of political identity and power, conservative views that do not accommodate the rich diversity of Islamic jurisprudence or the resistance to apply principles in today’s context to truly achieve principles forwarded by the Shariah.  

There also appears to be confusion and fear emanating from not being able to appreciate how a religion interacts with State administrative institutions and constitutional guarantees. 

“The delay means that injustice is perpetuated every day and only those who care for the communities affected will understand this and be moved to act without ego or personal political gain detracting from necessary reform,” Tegal said.

In the past, MMDA reforms have always been held back by political will – of the State and Muslim political leaders. Hence the timeline of presenting reforms to Parliament is within the control of the Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet. Therefore, this is a question for the ministry, explained Termiza, in terms of when the reforms would be discussed and put into practice. 

“There is no bar to signing on marriage papers in the Islamic jurisprudence of any sect,” explains Termiza. The value of consent of the bride is well recognised in Islam and giving expression to it in the administrative procedures adopted by a country is nothing but Islamic. It is both Islamic and adheres to constitutional guarantees of equality and equal protection of the law. 

In several Muslim countries we see brides being present at the marriage registration, signing the registration forms, and even formally verbally expressing consent to marry in the presence of those attending the ceremony. Therefore, there is no bar in the religion to women signing marriage papers.

Hate comments 

Hateful comments are an easy, unsophisticated response and often a failure or inability to engage constructively or substantially on an issue. In some hateful comments you can see that as a society and within families, oppressive attitudes towards women have been instilled. Hateful comments are extremely disappointing and destroy our ability to build respectful, caring, and kind societies as a community and as a country. 

“Those who see hateful comments and remain silent also perpetuate this culture,” explained Ermiza.

Shamla’s advice to Muslim women looking to get married in Sri Lanka

  • Take charge of your life by understanding and embracing both your religious and legal rights. Stand up for these rights, not just for yourself but also for others around you.
  • Your religious rights allow you to practise your faith, hold your beliefs, and express them without fear of discrimination. These rights are important and should be protected.
  • Similarly, your legal rights provide you with fairness, equality, and protection under the law. They ensure that you are treated justly and given equal opportunities but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also crucial to support others whose rights may be at risk. 
  • Use your knowledge and voice to advocate for justice and stand up against injustice. “Remember, you have the power to make a difference,” Shamla said. 

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