Recently the Sri Lanka Thawheed Ja’maath, an extremist religious group protested against the proposal to amend the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act as a pre-condition to re-grant the GSP+ by the European Union.
In 2010 the Council of Ministers of the European Union decided to withdraw its GSP+ tax concessions on Sri Lanka. These concessions are granted to a selected number of countries under stringent criteria which includes specific human rights and governance objectives that must be met. After the civil war the Rajapaksa government was accused of violations of human rights (ICCPR and convention on torture in particular) and nepotism which led to the devastating decision by the EU. More recently the present government opened up high level talks to regain the GSP+ but the EU placed strong criteria which included devolution, amendment of Prevention of Terrorism Act and penal code, reviewing laws on child marriage and gender equality. The Government thus decided to set the minimum age of marriage to 18.
Angered by this decision the SLTJ launched protests against any decision to amend the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act while other personal laws such as Kandyan Law and Thesavalame remained unchanged. The current law in Sri Lanka is that any girl under the age of 16 who is married off even with consent is regarded as statutory rape. The moment I saw the protests and listened to the SLTJ leader’s rhetoric I was greatly angered at the ignorance and vulgarism that was spread in the message. Although it is a constitutional right to protest what angered me more was that women and children participated in this protest as well. This is more than religious extremism; it is the lack of education that sparks these types of protests across communities.
IN RESPONSE TO SLTJ
I decided to call these protesters ‘basket cases’ and also provide them with some education that they seem to lack.
- A girl may attain puberty at the age of 12 or younger thus enabling her to reproduce but there are many dangers in impregnating a child which has serious health implications on both the mother and the baby.
- A woman’s body has not fully grown on attaining puberty. Childbirth at teen ages can result in: premature labour, prolonged labour, obstructed labour, anaemia or infant and/or maternal death.
- Children born to teen mothers could result in birth asphyxia as well. (A complication arising during labour when the umbilical cord entangles the foetus suffocating it resulting in loss of oxygen to the brain)
- 12 year old girls belong in schools. They should receive proper education so that they can earn and support themselves instead of being abused by husbands.
- SLTJ leader mentioned that ‘men should satisfy their needs’ which isolates the woman who also has the same needs as a man and also the right to say ‘no’ to sexual advances even under the auspices of marriage.
- A woman’s bodily integrity should not be violated.
- Child marriage is a violation of the Convention of the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW)
The SLTJ quotes sharia law which states a girl is allowed to be married - regardless of whether she is 9, 11, or 15 if she had attained puberty. The SLTJ leader then calls upon the government to ask ‘a ten year old child’ what they do after marriage thus implying that even 8 or 7 year olds today are aware of the concept of having sex. This does not come as a surprise because in 2012 Sri Lanka was ranked number one in ‘sex’ searches on Google and even little kids today have access to computers and the internet. Even though this is the case ‘sex’ is a taboo subject in Sri Lanka and national curriculums provide dis-satisfactory sex education which does not include gender mainstreaming, bodily integrity rights and safe sex. Our children hence grow up watching some clandestine porn.
The manner in which he refers to the sexual needs of a male completely disregarding the female is cringe worthy. This type of rhetoric demonstrates the lack of respect the protesters have towards women. They also profess to be highly educated in the Islamic religion. I am definitely no expert on Islam as a religion but this incident made me search for some interesting quotes from the Qur’an about women:
- "O You who have chosen to be graced with belief! It is not lawful for you to force women into marrying or holding on to them in marriage against their will.” (Quran, 4:19)
- "O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness… live with them on a footing of kindness and equity." [ Quran 4:19]
- "Anyone who acts rightly, male or female, being a believer, We will give them a good life and will recompense them according to the best of what they did" (Surat an-Nahl: 97)
In a Sri Lankan context allowing the SLTJ demands will impose a severe burden on maternal and child care clinics in the country and the Ministry of Health has a strong standpoint in not allowing such considerations to be executed. A minimum age on marriage is reasonable no matter how contradictory it is to sharia law.
Religious extremism and the lack of proper religious education is a major problem to building religious tolerance in Sri Lanka. This goes the same for other religions as well. The rhetoric of the SLTJ is asymmetric to the above mentioned teachings of Allah. I do not think that Sri Lanka should follow in the footsteps of countries with Islamic extremism. There are many educated Muslims who condemn these protests. Political leaders must approach this incident carefully. It is not wise to treat them with contempt for exercising a constitutional right to protest while also taking into consideration that a minimum age for marriage is established even if that means it is against islamic law