Hashtag Generation

Exploring the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act : Navigating Online Discourse and Dialogue

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (the “MMDA”) is a law compiling the bulk of Muslim family law applicable to all Sri Lankan Muslims. It includes provisions relating to Muslim marriages and divorces and was enacted in 1951. The MMDA is a combination of Shari’a law, Roman-Dutch law, Islamic legal practice and local customs.(1)

The MMDA has generated much controversy because of how its provisions discriminate against Muslim women and children. 

Several issues that have arisen out of its implementation include the practice of child marriages, the absence of the bride’s written consent and unequal access to divorce procedures. Another significant concern is the lack of regulation and implementation of polygamy. Muslim women are also denied the position of judges at their personal family courts (i.e. the Quazi court system). Consequently, many Muslim women feel helpless under this system, unable to claim basic rights that other women in Sri Lanka possess. 

Activists have been at the forefront for over thirty years, highlighting the grave injustices that Muslim women and children experience. In fact, since the 1970s, several committees have been established to investigate and report on different recommendations to address these concerns.  However, polarized views, especially within the Muslim community, have stagnated necessary progress. 

A prominent feature of this debate surrounding the MMDA is the punishment and beratement of Muslim women who attempt to bring autonomy and change to the lives of other women affected by the MMDA. Throughout their work, Muslim female activists campaigning for reform have been routinely targeted and harassed. With the rise of social media and the Internet space, many of these activists have found themselves the faces of various smear campaigns on the digital space. They are often subjected to a lens of criticism, in an attempt to humiliate them publicly and discount all their efforts. 

Many of these attacks centre on comments on their gender, sexuality, virtue, etc. A popular sentiment conveyed by these attacks is that Muslim women cannot (and should not) participate in dialogue surrounding their own rights, by reason of their gender. Their intelligence is contested simply because they’re women.

Another common form of harassment is the modesty of these women, manifested by attacks on their choice of attire and degree of ‘covering up’. These activists are thus relentlessly questioned about their faith, beliefs, and choices, creating speculation about whether they’re truly “Muslim”.

Muslim women activists are also labeled as ‘feminists’, ‘feminazis’ and ‘libtards’, as insults. These insults extend to accusations that Muslim female activists are purely appeasing to Western ideologies and movements, and are thus abandoning their community, and threatening the preservation of their religion. 

A prominent name amongst the MMDA reform movement is Bisliya Bhutto. Bisliya is a women’s rights activist and political leader based in Puttalam. Much of her work surrounds the reformation of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act and working with displaced women from Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war. Bisliya is one of the many activists who’ve faced different instances of abuse through her work, especially on platforms like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter). 

Bisliya’s personal photos were circulated around popular Facebook pages with suggestive commentary, as a way to defame her character and integrity. One post defaced her photo with crude emojis to portray her as a promiscuous woman. It remains one of the many tactics to intimidate and shame female activists out of their work. 

In 2022, a livestream featuring a member of an Islamic society went viral on Facebook. The video delved deeper into the different groups that advocated for MMDA reformation.  Labelling these groups as the “unknown masterminds”, the video even went to the extent of singling out certain Muslim activists and questioning their ideals. The video spoke of how these groups were funded by Western propaganda. The live stream was then circulated amongst peers and several Facebook groups. 

In 2023, a Muslim Content Writer named Shamla Naleer went viral on Sri Lankan X as she shared a photo signing her marriage contract along with her husband. While many celebrated her signature, many of the comments also questioned the necessity for such an action, the validity of her signature and cruel doubts about whether her marriage would even last. 

Comments on Shamla’s post 

These are just a few of the many instances where Muslim women are targeted for their activism and existences online. The anonymity of these digital platforms allows many of those who disagree with the movement to humiliate them publicly, largely without any repercussions.

Debate surrounding the MMDA is tense and divisive. The MMDA has also been weaponized and dismissed in public and legislative spaces multiple times, making debate around it more difficult.

A key perception in this sequence is that the MMDA amounts to Divine law when in reality it includes different facets of man-made law and interpretations. This is evident in how non-Islamic practices have been incorporated into the MMDA,(2) while the country from which various rules of this Act were borrowed (i.e. modern day Indonesia) has adopted a significantly more progressive stance.(3)

The catch-all is the practical reality that Muslim women and children face, having been left victims of a law that ignores their lived experiences, contexualities and concerns. Those who speak out for any change are publicly humiliated and punished. The obvious motive of these campaigns is to attack the credibility of the reformation movement and everyone involved. 

This discourse is not unpopular amongst male dominated circles but the unique nature of Muslim women’s place in society puts them in a position where they’re questioned on all fronts — as women, as Sri Lankans, and as Muslims. 

With the Internet space reckoned as this tool of immense change and transformation, Muslim women have found themselves ousted out of these digital landscapes. They have been largely unprotected — both by their peers inside of their community and outside of it. 

The discourse surrounding the MMDA is not new. It has only increased in relevance over the years and remains more pressing than ever. The online landscape has only made this dialogue more accessible while making it much easier to target activists as well. It is imperative that Sri Lankan Muslim women — like any other Sri Lankan citizen — are allowed to participate in this discourse, both online and offline. 

Muslim women must be allowed to challenge different ideas and contest their own autonomy with safety and respect. They must be allowed to speak. 


Article by 

  • Fawzul Himaya Hareed (Head of Communications at Sisterhood initiative)
  • Amani Raji (Programmes Coordinator at Sisterhood initiative)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Hashtag Generation. Any question or comment should be addressed to [email protected] 

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