Faizun Zackariya

Faizun Zackariya is co-founder of the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) and had been in the forefront of the struggle for Muslim personal law reforms since the 1980s. She is an activist, a researcher, and writer. In this interview with Women Talk, she talks about the formative years of MWRAF, the research, experiential and knowledge based advocacy process of reforms pioneered by MWRAF, issues surrounding current implementation of Muslim personal laws, and why it is significant to continue the struggle for reforms in ways that relate to women’s lived realities.     


You are co-founder of the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF) and have been involved in decades of activism and intellectual contribution. Where did this journey begin for you?

I come from very humble beginnings; my family was not involved in any businesses. There is the myth that all Muslims are involved in business, so they are all rich. In the late 1970s, after my education at the University of Peradeniya, I could see that life in the University was actually not the reality. In the University, you mingle with so many people; Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim. I could see that there was something much more that you have to see when you go into the society. The University was like a small cocoon. There is much more to learn about life and society and the need to be exposed to other worlds around.

Actually, my struggle for formal education was not easy. My father was very supportive. But going to Kandy and then living in a hostel was not considered very good, at that time. I had to convince my family. Gradually that was done very tactfully. But once I got out there, I was thrown into a different kind of life. I met many people from different backgrounds and experiences. The world was opening for me. What we learnt was not just from books but it extends beyond that.

I began to see and experience the kind of issues that women and others went through, whether they are rich, middle or working class, whether Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala. I was determined to do something more to change the social set up. There was the feeling that the system seems unjust, favouring some and not others. But where to start?

I was involved in small discussions with colleagues around issues, such as education and school drop-out, working women, poverty, and cultural, religious and ethnic barriers. These reflections helped me to formulate my own ideas and where I should focus on. I came to the conclusion that if we have the inner strong conviction to change the lives of suffering women and men, the first battle is won. All women have creative potential in different ways. Some can move on while others cannot; their potential is suppressed in the name of all kinds of forces.

What directions did you take once you left University?

It was in 1975 that I passed out from University. I started as a junior research associate at NIBM, where I was thrown into a different challenging working life, travelling around the country, meeting different ethnic communities and all the time learning more about people’s lives and their socio- economic heterogeneity. That was the year there was this big hype about women with the launch of the International Women’s Year. For me, it was still a bit distant and did not touch me. I felt that the issues articulated by women, here in Sri Lanka, and their realities were not well internalized within this discourse.

I had a short stint at teaching at St. Bridget’s Convent and then at the Muslim Ladies’ College. In these schools, I got the opportunity to interact with the younger generation. I could bring my experience. I had the dream to make students interested to take up social issues. I taught them to think critically, bring different perspectives, and to have an open mind; so that they will then be able to grapple with any issue.

Interspersed during my teaching career, I was also closely involved in adult education and with school dropouts, and directed the Academy programmes for Muslim women. Here I designed a programme to bring women from Colombo and Amparai together in interactive skill trainings, learning, and sharing their experiences with the aim of broadening their outlook.

My conviction, training, experience, and my own interaction with multi ethnic communities all added to my experiential learning. When I got involved in social issues, doing some basic research I could see that the Muslim community is internally differentiated in spatial and structural terms. There was the issue of school drop outs, poverty and also the huge issue about migrant women going to the Middle East as domestic workers. Through discussions with some close colleagues, we could reflect on cultural-religious impediments and how the law is used and abused via unwritten laws when it comes to Muslim women, especially in getting justice. This exposure I had with Muslim women’s issues and their rights violations brought in another international dimension to the problems I saw.

You are an active member of the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML). How did this global forum help you to strengthen your work with women in Sri Lanka?

Combining my local activism with the global and developing solidarity links with other activists started in 1986 with Women Living Under Muslim Laws. WLUML is an international solidarity network formed in 1984 in response to situations that required urgent action which related to Islam, laws, and women. WLUML provides information, support and a collective space for women whose lives are shaped, conditioned or governed by laws and customs said to derive from Islam.

I have been a core group member of the network since inception and formulated their Plan of Action in 1986. WLUML has been a tower of solidarity and support to our local struggles, bringing the much needed knowledge, on strategies, information resources and campaigns, thus building strong solidarity links. The concept of one homogenous Muslim world is a myth, as such formulations overdetermines the power of Islam in the lives of women glossing over the complexities. The dream of WLUML is to dismantle that notion and celebrate women’s multi identities and their diverse lives.

I have to mention two critical political turning points for WLUML which had far reaching consequences for all activists across the Muslim world and especially for us at MWRAF. Firstly, in 1986, the international cross cultural exchange where women from Muslim countries and communities from diverse contexts were able to meet and share their experiences on how religion, culture, and laws that were written/unwritten mingle in their own lives. Secondly, between 1991-2002, international action research on women and laws. It was a collective project attempting to confirm multiple understandings of Muslim laws, having a three pronged approach, distinguishing between law, enacting, the interpretation and implementation. Today, WLUML is a strong global solidarity movement, which has been vocal on women’s rights violations through its campaigns, solidarity actions, publications, action research, and global-local direct actions.

Since its inception in 1986, for over 30 years MWRAF has been involved in the struggle of Muslim Personal Law (MPL) reforms. How and why was MWRAF formed?

MWRAF was formed during an era when communalised politics was at its height and ethnicities were highly polarised in Sri Lanka. It was an era when educated Muslim women were beginning to carve their own spaces, getting employed and becoming more visible in the public domain. In spite of these positive trends, religious orthodoxy was pervasive. A few professional women, who met informally, started to discuss and critique the manifold issues confronting the Muslim community and especially its women. The collective thinking and interactions, regular meetings and dialogues with a cross-section of the Muslim community, both women and (some) men, culminated in a dream that was transformed into an organization. MWRAF was constituted as a formal body in early 1986.

MWRAF’s pluralist identity in the Lankan context has been consciously forged is apparent in its engagement not only with Muslim issues, but also with non-Muslim actors and networks at the local, national, and sub-national levels. To perceive us as a ‘Muslim organisation’ focusing only on Muslim issues is incorrect. The choice of name as Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum, and reference to ‘Muslim Women’ was of strategic-political value. Firstly, it was to maintain MWRAF’s legitimacy in its self-critique of Muslim society from within to bring about the much-needed social change, and, at the same time, to enhance its own credibility when working in consonance with other ethnic groups in keeping with its pluralist identity.

Could you elaborate on MWRAF’s formative years and the significance of the research that was done, leading up to forming recommendations for MPL reforms?

Through our research, we could see that laws, I am using the word plural, because there are multiple layers of laws that affect women. And those laws are not only the formulated legal frameworks and written laws but there are the informal laws –  the customs, the values, behaviour, and the norms, which are the unwritten laws. For women, and for Muslim women in particular, it is the informal laws that affect them more and their lives, of course depending on where they are located and to which class and social economic strata they belong. That perspective is very important because we can’t just talk about women and women’s rights as one bloc. From where are the women coming, what is their geographical location, what is their social class, what kind of resources they have, do they have information, do they have access to relevant information? All these things matter a lot. When we talk about laws, we have to have that understanding and analysis. Otherwise, it becomes very superficial.

When we look at the law and how it was being implemented, in particular the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of 1951, we could see how Muslim women’s access to justice is obstructed in the name of religion, culture, and custom. This was a good eye-opener for us. We felt we were not competent to challenge these unjust judgements because at that time we did not have enough information and ground knowledge, especially research. We had to better strategise ourselves.

At that time, in 1984-6 a National Personal Law reforms committee was functioning looking at all personal laws, not only Muslim. We thought it is an opportune time. So, we thought we should put forth our recommendations. A sub committee was formed to look at specifically issues that affect Muslims, and Muslim women, as there were some concerns from different quarters that non-Muslims were talking about Muslim issues. Using my contacts with the WLUML, our limited resources, experiences and information, we were able to send MWRAF recommendations in 1986. We were also able to muster a signature campaign to support our memo.

Video provided by: Faizun Zackariya and Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (MWRAF)

What are the issues in the existing Quazi systems in relation to the way Muslim personal laws are practiced?

The Quazi system is a family court, operating since 1929.  There is the Board of Quazis, which is the appellate court. There is a long history of MPL reforms and setting up of special Quazi courts. Today, there are 64 Quazi court jurisdiction divisions across the country. So, the Quazi family court adjudicates on marriage and divorce, while maintenance, and child custody issues are discussed at the Quazi court, it has to go through the general courts. The Quazi judges are all men. This has been so since inception.

The numerous issues that we had highlighted in many fora are the patriarchal cultural underpinning of laws, the way law is formulated (what is said and not), interpretation, application and implementation, procedural lapses in using or abusing the law, competence/incompetence of Quazi judges, problems related to justice mechanisms and institutions, and using religion and culture to silence women’s voices to bring reforms. More important was our suggestion to include women Quazis within this system, and we pointed out the lacunae as a result of the absence of women Quazis in Sri Lanka. We have even shared experiences of other countries who have women judges in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Many Quazis have limited infrastructure facilities. Some Quazi judges just have a room in their house, which they use as the Quazi court. This informal way of handling cases has its positive and negative consequences. Women who come to the Quazi court feels it is a very intimidating space to meet these Quazis. There is often a crowd, and women cannot talk about their own problems freely in such environments. The whole system itself is very intimidating for women. The justice mechanism is not favourable for women at all.

What were some of the work that MWRAF did in terms of research, awareness, and training on MMDA and MPL reforms?

We realised that we have to do much more. I would like to mention three key drivers in this effort. Firstly, there is the whole area of building knowledge and information dissemination and sharing with the Muslim community, including men and women. So, action-research and issue-based publications was one of our focuses. Here we were able to build our resource centre, which now has a collection of specific works related to Muslim laws, women, and women’s strategies.

By 1990s I was very active in the WLUML network. The Muslim world is not an uniform law – it is not God given, it is man-made. There is a lot of difference in the way the laws are framed and practiced and enmeshed with local customs that affect Muslim women and communities.

The culmination of many discussions, meetings, and face-to-face exposures was the international collective research on women and laws. There were 28 countries involved in a global study. For this research, we were looking at the legal, social, and historical background of the laws, its interpretation, and also implementation issues in relation to laws and women. That was a comprehensive research. Based on our findings, WLUML published Knowing Our Rights, a handbook, which is an essential resource for those taking a critical and questioning approach to rights, laws, and constructions of womanhood in Muslim countries, communities, and beyond. In this publication, we compared whole systems, practices, laws as well as the strategies that women have been using.

What are some of MWRAF’s work that was carried out at the ground level and with communities?

By that time, we had started social awareness and education on what is the present MPL and how it works for Muslim women and men. We initiated outreach work in eight areas where the Muslim community live and work. We also trained para-legal counsellors (or barefoot legal counsellors). We were able to prepare them to support the affected women, to access the Quazi court and get needed redress.

We identified eight areas like Trinco, Muttur, Kurunegala, Kalmunai, Batticaloa, Badulla, and Mawanalla, Puttalam where the Muslim population is concentrated. With that core group of paralegals, we were able to expand our case work and also took up affected women’s cases through our in house lawyer at the local, district, and central levels at upper-appeal courts. Where necessary we get additional legal experts. Even today, there are a lot of people and women who come to the mobile clinics as well as to the Colombo office. I can say confidently that we have recorded a 99 percent success rate, whether it was maintenance, custody, and compensation in the case of unfair talaq where the male initiates the divorce.

We were the first to initiate dialogues with island-wide Quazi court judges in 1994, as a follow up to our action-research. This was the first organized move at the national level to facilitate discussion with Quazis on women-centred issues. It was also a step to negotiate the process, addressing practical field level questions and gender equitable judgements. Many of the Quazis were practicing the laws according to their own interpretations. So, there was a lot of confusion. Our research also showed that very clearly. We informed them on the laws, the procedures, the regulations, clauses, and the system.  However, the next issue we faced was that the Quazis who are trained are a floating cadre. They have three-year terms and then new people take over. Then again the same problems are being repeated, so we had to have regular refresher trainings. All Quazis know some things about their vocation but the way they practice and handle the issues at the field level is problematic.

Through the research, we were able to understand and sharpen our analysis that Sri Lanka could do much better in terms of bringing justice to Muslim women through reforming the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), which is today more than 65 years.

How did MWRAF go on to progress with furthering submitting recommendations on the MMDA and MPL reforms in the 1980s to 2000s?

So, the first memo, in 1986, and signature campaign was prepared with limited information and experience but it had its own momentum as a catalyst. The second memo in 1991 was much more extensively researched and studied, and was used widely in all the deliberations of the MPL committee. At that time, we were fully geared because we had done our international research through WLUML, we had our  knowledge resource, we had our paralegals trained, we also had women’s representation with two women in the committee for the first time. We were educating the MPL reforms committee, sharing all the information and resources that we had about progressive legislation in Muslim countries.


We continued our work into the 2000s. We were taking up cases and we were also strengthening our local field constituency. In 2005, the Independent Committee for Muslim Personal Law Reforms (ICMPLR) was formed, as a joint people’s initiative to take forward this shared realisation that the existing MMDA did not fulfil the requirements of present needs and challenges and also to reform the Quazi court system. The main purpose of these numerous discussions was to bring our experiential knowledge of the law, social issues, its implementation at the grassroots level, and broad base the law reform efforts with MPL practitioners, lawyers, Mosque trustees, Quazi judges, concerned persons, the para legal counsellors and the community women. And also to initiate a process of reform and dialogue within the Muslim community in the absence of state led efforts since the 1990-92 MPLR.

Then for three years we worked with the ICMPLR from 2005-2009.  It was a laborious process. In the first, we had discussions in all the district levels with the Quazis having their own meetings with concerned persons including mosque trustees and lawyers. Thereafter, the PLCs held meetings with community women. A sub committee discussed all the reports and have further discussions with experts to refine the reports.

Then the lawyers and social groups also contributed to the final report. It was also translated into Sinhala and Tamil to reach a wider audience. Finally, we also had a big lobby cum consultation meeting, attempting to reach a consensus on the issues highlighted. Of course, there were some problems and challenges in this process too.

How did the MPL reforms discourse shape in the late 2000s, following from MWRAF’s influential research and field work in the previous two decades?

In 2009, when a Committee appointed by the Cabinet under the Ministry of Justice was formed to revive the MPL reforms issue after a lapse of almost nineteen years, our ICMPLR report was ready.

The third was not a memorandum but a comprehensive document (2005-2009) of hard work and careful study through an independent people’s initiative, Independent Committee on MPL reforms. It was a precursor to the Committee appointed by the Cabinet of 2009, which is still finalising its report at this time, November 2017.  In this committee, too, we had women’s representation to voice Muslim women’s concern. Since 1986, we continued to prioritise the core issue and rights of appointing women into the Quazi judges’ cadre, jury panel and Advisory board system. We furnished all information and resources to support our recommendations with progressive legislation from Muslim countries and communities. We don’t know how far this will be taken on board.

In the last 10 years we have handled almost more than 10,000 cases with 90 percent success. Landmark judgements to mention is evidence that there is space to lever and balance women’s rights and justice within the MMDA if handled carefully, be sensitive to the reality and current problems, an open understanding, and a commitment and enlightenment to reforming the system. What women want is justice.  This is not something against ‘religion or culture’. Islam talks about peace and justice, which is one of the fundamental values.

The report is still being finalised at this moment. I don’t know whether the bill will ever see the light. But we are hopeful and are continuing our work. We have done a lot. But sadly, the same kind of arguments are coming up after many many years. But now many more Muslim women’s groups are pushing for reforms.

Communities are more aware, whether it is in Puttalam or in the East, and are supporting for change. In particular, some of them had even discussions with the parliamentarians and Muslim religious leaders.

Why is it significant to continue the struggle for MPL reforms?

Why we have to talk about MPL reforms is because there is this confusion about Muslim and Islam. For me, Islam is the faith. It is my personal relationship with my God. It is direct. We don’t need intermediaries. My conviction is quite clear; women want justice. But the stumbling blocks are the religio-power groups who are attempting to silence Muslim women’s voices, using religious arguments, and instil fear among moderate thinking community persons. But I still feel if women are aware, are informed, have their own analysis, know how to act, and organise themselves, they are able to counter those kinds of arguments. They have to be prepared to challenge those forces at all levels.

A law will not exist in isolation. You have the whole socio-political environment around framing law. Even when a law is implemented or enacted you see the debates around it and you can see how people talk about it or how the media portrays it. Strong people’s voices and women’s voices for justice tend to be suppressed and remain invisible in these discourses.

For me, also, if you talk only of law it does not work. You have to relate to women’s realities and their daily lives. Multiple factors influence their lives. Women have to understand the root of their problems, need to analyse their problem, then it becomes clear what needs to be done and how. At one level is the battle to reform the system and making the law just and equitable. The other battle is   to motivate women and mentor them. It won’t come from one workshop. For me, there you need a long drawn supportive process, having women engaged for a long time, immersed in their own issues and taking them through an empowerment process. That process is so important.

So, that is what we are trying to do. Whether it is through our publications or our simple booklets, we have been doing a lot. MWRAF has not just been doing work related to Muslim women and law, we have been also actively involved in peacebuilding at the local level and grassroots level. What ever we do, people’s and women’s lives and their access to rights and justice is central for us.

All laws and their regulation have underpinnings of patriarchal cultural values. That is across all religions. That has continued for centuries and for generations. It will not change with one reforms initiative. Even some progressive lawyers, Muslim lawyers, and so called ‘intellectuals’ are stuck with the same outlook. So it is an endemic and structural issue. Muslim women have a big battle to fight against that traditional regressive outlook.

Is it challenging for you to be an activist?

I love challenges. Without challenges, we cannot move forward. But now after many years of experience and working at different levels I know how to move. We need to support community women and men to internalize their issues, and we need to mobilise people. If we bring in experts from out and say these are the issues that affect you, it will not touch them. We have to do a lot of work to change their outlook through a process. Critical thinking, reflection, and action will come through a lot of mentoring. It will not come from reading a few books. It will not come from one awareness or workshop. I have seen how mentoring gives results. It is so inspiring to see women coming forward. But forces can suppress that initiative and that energy. That means that the field has to be strengthened. The community women’s voices need to come out and be champions of their own issues.

We Muslims are a minority and we are living in a Sri Lankan multi ethnic context. We can see how narrow ‘identitiarian’ issues have made us a fragmented community as Sinhala, Tamil, Muslims.  In the same way, the whole debate on culture – this is my identity and this is my culture, so, don’t touch it.  For me, whose culture are we talking about? Whose identity?  We have to question. And culture is something that is shifting. Aren’t women’s voices part of creating an alternative culture that is equal and just? For me, a woman has multiple identities. Religion is only one of those identities. We should relish and celebrate the rich ethnic diversity and let women’s creative potential blossom.

Date of Interview: 10 October 2017

Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage



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