Women activists demand that reforms should address demands such as the minimum age of marriage and reform of divorce provisions.
The reformation of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) has become a hot button topic over the past few months. There is expectation that the committee headed by Justice Saleem Marsoof which is tasked with making recommendations on the reform of the MMDA will make their report public soon. Women activists both within and from outside the Muslim community have made clear that the proposed reforms should address a number of demands.These demands relate (among other things) to the minimum age of marriage, the requirement for the woman’s consent for marriage to be mandatory, reform of divorce provisions, practices relating to dowry and alimony, and significant reform of the Quazi court system including allowing for women Quazis.[i]The debate over the reform of the MMDA has thus far been bracketed as an internal discussion for the Muslim community, particularly since Muslims are only allowed to marry under the MMDA and not the general marriage law of the country. However, in this short essay I will argue that the debate over the MMDA is also an invitation to a much broader discussion on the relationship between sex, politics, and governance in Sri Lanka.
The problem of governing sex and desire is one of the core questions at the heart of the current debate over the MMDA. For example, activists campaigning for stipulating a minimum age of marriage under the MMDA emphasize the need to ensure the “… bodily maturity and the ability to consent freely to marriage and sexual intercourse”.[ii]In contrast, the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama (ACJU)argue against stipulating the minimum age of marriage on the grounds (among others) that “Ibn Hazm says: A father giving in marriage of his daughter before attaining puberty is possible and this is the evidence that Abu Bakkar (Radhi Allahu Anhu) gave A’ishah (Radhi Allahu Anhu) on marriage to Prophet (Peace be upon him) when she was 6 years old)”.[iii]For reformists, the emphasis is on the right of an adult woman (who is at least 18) to determine when and who she marries and by extension, has sex with. Desire is the implicit (yet, silent) partner in this demand for a Muslim woman’s right to consent. Conservatives in contrast, emphasize religious teaching and cultural tradition to argue against the need to radically alter the conditions under which the Muslim community currently makes decisions about marriage and sex. What undergirds both these seemingly contradictory stances is the question of how to and who should regulate/ govern sex and desire.
The problem of governing sex and desire is one of the core questions at the heart of the current debate
It also reminds us of the need to consider how powerful groups within communities can collude with the very structures that they claim pose a threat to the community
The campaign marked this out as a dastardly plot by radical elements in the Muslim community to alter the demography of the island with a view to eventually becoming the majority in the country
The concern with regulating sex and desire draws attention to the ways in which concerns about the population have increasingly become the focus of debates about the governance of minorities in the country. For example, it was only earlier this year that moves to include the decriminalization of homosexuality in the Human Rights Action Plan were rejected on grounds such as “social concerns”[iv], the need for “a future generation”[v]and the possibility of “cultural destruction” that could ensue.[vi] Similarly it was only a few years ago that a campaign was carried out on social media warning Sinhalese that certain Muslim department stores were allegedly handing out sweets that would result in impotency. The campaign marked this out as a dastardly plot by radical elements in the Muslim community to alter the demography of the island with a view to eventually becoming the majority in the country. Other social media campaigns have attempted to call on Sinhala women to procreate more frequently as a means of resisting the spread of the Muslim population in the country. There was also serious concern expressed at one point that the delay in publishing the final report of the 2012 Census was because the Muslim community now outnumbered the Sinhala community.[vii]These campaigns also echo long-standing concerns about declining fertility rates in the Sinhala community and its impact on recruitment to the military as well as the Buddhist clergy.[viii]What all these examples highlight is how the regulation of sex and desire is indexed towards exerting control over minorities and women in the country. The foregrounding of concerns about sex and desire draws our attention to the politics of governing and regulating populations and relationships between populations in Sri Lanka. Therefore, choosing to ignore or side-step the MMDA debate on the grounds that it is an internal discussion for the Muslim community fails to take into account the larger sexual politics at work in the country.
The MMDA debate draws our attention to these larger questions about the function of sexual politics within the country.For example, the sexual curiosity of children is often proffered as an argument against increasing the minimum age of marriage among the Muslim community by law. However, at the heart of this argument is the question of to what extent law is an effective form of regulating sex and desire. We can see how the MMDA debate resonates with the conversation over the use of the death penalty as a way of regulating the sexual proclivities of child abusers and rapists. The reader may remember that at the time, the proponents of the death penalty strongly argued that the reintroduction of the death penalty would regulate the sexual desire of these criminal elements. A related question is also what purpose does the regulation of sex and desire within a community serve. These arguments over regulation are an attempt to establish control for those who wish to be identified as the gatekeepers of morality. The struggle by men to preserve their status as the gatekeepers of the morality of their community is indexed as a way of determining who can be considered a ‘true’ Muslim. By establishing the parameters for inclusion and exclusion, these power struggles work towards concretising and defining membership in a community. If we remember that the earliest concerns with defining the parameters of cultural identity were rooted in attempts to further colonial control of subject populations, we begin to be far more suspicious of these projects of definition.
"The debate over the MMDA is also an invitation to a much broader discussion on the relationship between sex, politics, and governance in Sri Lanka. "
It also reminds us of the need to consider how powerful groups within communities can collude with the very structures that they claim pose a threat to the community. Therefore, supporting the moves for reforming the MMDA also affords a way of challenging many of the colonial legacies that continue to play a role in determining how the country is governed today. Contextualizing the MMDA debate within the struggle over the trajectory of Sri Lanka’s sexual politics makes it possible to open more pathways for understanding and coalition building between various groups around the country. Therefore, it is no longer possible to bracket off the MMDA struggle as a solely Muslim concern. When we begin to trace the flows of power, we begin to see how the MMDA reform debate has much broader repercussions. We see how the regulation of sex and desire are increasingly staked as the terrain for determining the relationship between law and social control. Nor can our stance on the MMDA be divorced from the question of how projects of definition are linked today to the drive to police women’s bodies, sex, and desires. The debate also demonstrates how the logic of sexual regulation through insecurities about birth rates, infertility, and spread of minority cultures is increasingly coded in discussions on governing populations in Sri Lanka. In other words, the reform of the MMDA is not only circumscribed by the question of the rights of women within Muslim personal law. It challenges us to consider how the very terms of this debate continue to invoke the relationship between the disciplinary logic of sexual regulation and the production of populations for more malleable governance of the country. And when we begin to see that we can no longer afford to cast aside the questions raised by the MMDA reform movement as irrelevant to larger debates over rights, populations, and governance in Sri Lanka today.
The writer is a Senior Researcher attached to the Social Scientists’ Association, Sri Lanka. He can be contacted via email – firstname.lastname@example.org