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Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School Working PaperJuly 2007The Recognition of Muslim Personal Laws in South Africa:Implications for Women’s Human RightsRASHIDA MANJOOHuman Rights Program at Harvard Law School1563 Massachusetts Avenue – Pound Hall 401Cambridge, MA 02138No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission of the author.1

The Recognition of Muslim Personal Laws in South Africa:Implications for Women’s Human Rights Rashida ManjooVisiting Fellow, September 2006-December 2007Human Rights Program at Harvard Law SchoolFormer Commissioner of South Africa’s Commission on Gender EqualityLaw, Race, and Gender Research Unit – University of Cape TownEmail: [email protected] Manjoo is an Advocate of the High Court of South Africa and a former commissioner of theCommission on Gender Equality (CGE), a constitutional body mandated to oversee the promotion andprotection of gender equality. Prior to being appointed to the CGE she was involved in social contexttraining for judges and lawyers, where she has designed both content and methodology during her time atthe Law, Race, and Gender Research Unit—University of Cape Town and at the University of Natal,Durban.The Human Rights Program (HRP) seeks to give impetus and direction to international human rightswork at Harvard Law School. Established in 1984, HRP works to educate students who will be among theleaders of the human rights movement, and fosters progress within the movement through its rams/hrp.2

PROJECT REPORT 2005-7THE RECOGNITION OF MUSLIM PERSONAL LAWS IN SOUTHAFRICA: IMPLICATIONS FOR WOMEN’S HUMAN RIGHTSEditor: Rashida Manjoo*1) IntroductionBringing personal status laws into conformity with international and constitutional equalrights provisions is an imperative for the protection of women’s human rights.Multicultural secular democracies face a challenge in effectively and meaningfullyguaranteeing the right to equality and the right to religion and culture. Currently, Muslimmarriages are not legally recognized in South Africa.Nearly 1.5 million of SouthAfrica’s citizens are Muslims, yet their marriages do not enjoy legal status. Some seekout the civil law system, but the rest are without formal legislative redress when problemsarise within a marriage. This creates problems for parties in Muslim marriages generally,but for women in particular, especially in the family law arena.This report identifies potential constitutional violations that may emerge in the law reformefforts that are currently taking place in South Africa. It explores amongst other issues,the tensions between women’s equality rights and religious rights, codification ofreligious personal status laws versus recognition of religious marriages, achieving equalaccess to justice for all women, and also tensions arising between individual equalityrights and group equality rights.*This report reflects research undertaken by students registered in the Clinical Advocacy Course at the HumanRights Program (HRP), Harvard Law School. HRP offers course work and fosters the participation of studentsin human rights activities. Amongst other activities, HRP also develops and supervises student clinical projects.One of the projects embarked on by students in 2005/6 was that of “[T]he Recognition of Muslim Personal Lawsin South Africa: Implications for Women’s Human Rights”. Students involved in the project included: MujonBaghai, Nazia Izuddin, Elodie Moser, Yvonne Osirim, Pranvera Recica and Erica Westernberg. The project wasconceptualised and supervised by Rashida Manjoo (Visiting Fellow, Human Rights Program/ Research Assoc,Law Faculty- University of Cape Town, South Africa). This report is based on work undertaken over twosemesters by law students and also further work undertaken by the editor. It reflects a narrow and morelegalistic approach to the issue of recognition of religious marriages in South Africa, as opposed to asociological or anthropological approach.3

South Africa is in the process of considering separate legislation that will recognizeMuslim marriages. In July 2003, the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC)submitted a report to the Minister of Justice along with proposed draft legislation calledthe Muslim Marriages Act (hereinafter referred to as the SALRC bill) which wouldrecognize Muslim marriages.1 The proposed bill addresses the registration of Muslimmarriages, the dissolution of such marriages, custody of and access to minor children, andthe issue of maintenance (both spousal and child support). Provision is also made for theregulation of polygynous marriages. According to the SALRC, adoption of the draft billwould go a long way in creating legal certainty regarding Muslim marriages; it wouldgive effect to Muslim values; and it would afford better protection to women in thosemarriages, in accordance with both Islamic and South African constitutional tenets. TheSALRC draft bill codifies elements of Muslim Personal Laws, by outlining rules for avariety of marital situations. The provisions in the SALRC bill are similar to provisionson Muslim Personal Laws as codified or applied in some countries including India,Nigeria, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Uganda, Tanzania, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Though mostof these countries are multicultural, they succumb to different models of multiculturalism.Each of these models demonstrates a different approach to Muslim Personal Laws.Section three below will discuss Ayelet Shachar’s models of multiculturalism and alsosome consequences that have arisen in a few Asian and African countries which haveadopted Muslim Personal Laws.As a consequence of receiving numerous concerns relating to the SALRC Bill, whichrevolved around both constitutionality issues generally and women’s right to equality inparticular, the Parliamentary Office of the South African Commission for Gender Equality(CGE) drafted an alternative draft bill in October 2005. This Bill, called the Recognitionof Religious Marriages Bill (hereinafter referred to as the CGE bill), was produced withthe assistance of the office of the State Law Advisor, and was in fulfillment of the CGE’sconstitutional mandate.2 This is a secular bill, of general application, that provides for therecognition of all religious marriages and avoids issues of codification of specificreligious tenets, so as to comply with both international and constitutional lawimperatives. It also addresses the lacuna that exists with respect to the non-recognition ofother religious marriages.4

The CGE Bill was discussed with the SALRC and then handed over to the relevantexecutive structures. The hope was that broad public consultations would be held bythem, particularly by the Gender Directorate of the Department of Justice. But neither theMinistry of Justice nor the Ministry of Home Affairs has acceded to numerous requestsfor a meeting with the CGE, nor have they undertaken any public consultations on theCGE Bill. The most recent development has been the discussion of potential litigation, tochallenge the unconstitutionality of non-recognition of marriages conducted underMuslim laws.3In assessing the best approach to the problem of non-recognition of religious marriages,the South African constitution must be interpreted in its historical context, i.e. by focusingon fundamentally reversing the effects of racial and gender discrimination that existedunder apartheid. The constitutional mandate is transformative justice and hence the goalis substantive equality, not just formal equality.4 The centrality of equality is reflected inthe fact that the Constitution sets forth human dignity, equality, and non-sexism asfoundational values.5 South Africa’s courts have stressed that this history ofdiscrimination and the push to remedy the real-world impact of such wrongs must informany interpretation of the Constitution, especially the provisions on equality.6 Taking allthese factors into account, this report attempts to set out the applicable international andconstitutional law obligations; the relevant domestic jurisprudence that is of persuasivevalue; and, finally examines a few sections of both draft Bills. The relevant sections thatare examined, relate broadly to the achievement of the rights to substantive genderequality, freedom of religion and access to justice.2) MethodologyStudents registered in the Clinical Advocacy Course in the Human Rights Program, HarvardLaw School in 2005/6, conducted desktop research on the constitutional validity, impact, andconsequences of the abovementioned bills. Research also included a comparative analysis,seeking to identify practices and legislative models in select countries in Africa, Asia, Europeand North America. The one week field work undertaken in October 2005 included: thepresentation of the research at a workshop hosted by the CGE in Cape Town; interviews with5

academics, community members, and government officials; and participation in a seminarwith staff of the CGE. For the purposes of the latter seminar, the students engaged in an indepth discussion on comparisons that reflected their analysis of the differences and also theimplications of both the Bills.†The findings and debates emanating from the desktopresearch and the field-work are reflected in this report. This report will be shared with theCGE and with relevant civil society organizations. It is hoped that it will be used for thepurposes of advocacy at both the legislative and litigation levels, in respect of thepromulgation of constitutionally sound legislation which recognizes all religious marriages,without violating women’s human rights. This report uses the term Muslim Personal Laws torefer to personal status laws emanating from the tenets of Islamic religious sources.3) Models of multiculturalism3.1 GeneralThis section largely draws on the work of Ayelet Shachar, who distinguishes between twodifferent models of multiculturalism: the religious particularist model and the secularabsolutist model. The ‘religious particularist model’ is a governance model in which differentreligious communities are vested with legal power over their members’ personal statuses.7This model addresses the problem of respecting cultural differences by granting religiouscommunities the authority to follow their own traditions in the family law arena.Communities are vested with legal power over matters of personal status and propertyrelations, and the state does not regulate citizens’ marriage and divorce affairs.8The second model, the ‘secular absolutist model’ is a system in which the state retainsauthority over family law matters and all citizens are subject to a uniform secular family law.Under the secular absolutist model, the state defines legally what constitutes the family andregulates its creation and dissolution. A uniform secular state law is imposed upon allcitizens in family law matters, regardless of those citizens’ group affiliation(s). Religiousofficials have no prescribed role in defining or celebrating marriages.9 In its ideal form, the†The speakers and focus of each presentation at the workshop included: Elodie Moser – “Multiculturalism andLegal Systems - Models at Work”; Nazia Yusuf Izuddin – “A Comparative Analysis of Muslim Personal Law inAfrica and Asia: Indicators for the South African Bill”; and Erica Westenberg – “Constitutional Analysis ofProposed Muslim Marriages Act”. Mujon Baghai and Yvonne Osirim contributed to the desk-top research whichinformed sections of the presentations.6

secular absolutist model denies legal recognition for a marriage or divorce performed by arepresentative of a religious family law tradition. It also refuses to acknowledge the possibledistributive aspect of religious family law traditions. In other words, the state does notallocate any legal authority to the groups over issues of status or property relations, preservingfor itself the ultimate regulatory power over the citizenry in matters of marriage and divorce.In theory, the key apparent advantage of the secularist absolutist model is that it creates alegal regime in which the state has a hold over all ministers, which then avoids the claim that“ the state only supports the practices of the majority [population] in the family lawarena.”10 Hence, all forms of religious marriage and divorce proceedings, whether Christian,Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc, have no legal validity under state law. In practice, however, theallocation of legal authority set by the secular absolutist model clearly does not advance thepreservation of groups through the accommodation of their diversity: rather it falls short ofrespecting and addressing family laws and traditions, other than those that exist in thedominant religious, social and legal systems.As Shachar suggests, “ [t]he secularabsolutist model is based on the presumption that religious practices are relegated to the“private” realm.”11Shachar argues that one can distinguish the ‘secular absolutist model’ of civil law countriessuch as France, Germany, and the Netherlands, in which there is strict separation of churchand state,12 and the ‘modified absolutist system’ employed in Australia, Britain, Canada, andthe United States, which permits some formal recognition of religious traditions, such as byauthorizing religious officials to solemnize marriages.13 In the latter model, the state stillmaintains its decisive authoritative power to regulate citizens’ marriage and divorce affairs,but state family law codes have been rewritten so as to sanction greater cultural diversity. Forinstance, civil authorities may invest religious officials with parallel authority to formalizemarriages.14 Shachar points out that “ [t]his [modified absolutist] model is importantbecause it provides formal recognition of certain aspects of minority communities’ family lawtraditions.”15 She also shows that “ [a]t the same time, it created a legal route for secularauthorities to limit the exploitative power used by religious spouses to gain excessive rights inexchange for religious divorce decrees.”16 However, while this legal arrangement may wellresolve some individual cases of oppression, it does not create any encouragement forreligious communities to reconsider their internal norms. She states “[T]his model may7

just incite more reactive culturalist response – even well-meaning modifications by the statestill have the effect of preserving a basic imbalance.”17 Though secular countries can followthis route to control gender injustice and other forms of religious control in the secular sphere,the modified absolutist model is unlikely to prevent the violation of women’s human rights.While the concepts of multiculturalism and legal pluralism have drawn significant scholarlyattention and debate in the past decade, large scale legal pluralism in the area of family lawhas not taken root in western industrialized countries. In the United States we see traces oflegal pluralism, where Native Americans retain powers of self-government that extends tofamily law. In Australia and New Zealand, Aboriginal and Maori customary law receivesome recognition, but courts do not apply or enforce this customary law directly. In commonlaw countries, some religious clergy have legal authority to formalize marriages, provided thatthe parties obtain a marriage license from the state. With these small exceptions, westernindustrialized countries largely maintain unified family law systems, and persons of allreligious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds are subject to the same family law rules andinstitutions. In contrast, a pluralist system can be characterized as one that maintains theautonomy and sovereignty of different minority cultures.18 Schachar points out both thebenefits and the risks inherent in pluralist systems. She argues that pluralist systems may putat risk the equality rights of vulnerable group members, while uniform systems might do abetter job at protecting citizenship rights and ensuring equal treatment. On the other hand,such pluralist systems may also deny the importance of particular cultural or religious norms,and discriminate against minority groups, whose traditions are distinct from those embeddedwithin the dominant culture. In Schachar’s view, one solution to achieving the protection andpromotion of both individual and group rights is to have a joint governance system betweenthe state and the cultural group.193.2) Comparing Models from Asia and AfricaThis section sets out a brief picture of the challenges and consequences of the adoption ofMuslim Personal Laws in a few Asian and African countries. An unavoidable tension incodifying Muslim Personal Laws in different contexts is whether to adopt a monolithic or apluralistic system. This is partly due to the reality that there is usually neither a homogenousMuslim community nor a single interpretation of religious laws in that context. Furthermore,8

the issue of the public status and role of religion is also a contested one in many countries. Forexample, India, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Sri Lanka are secular nations to the extent thatthe Constitution does not recognize a state religion. All of these countries, however, haverecognized Muslim citizens to be governed by their personal laws relating to marriage,divorce, maintenance (spousal and child support), custody and guardianship, and have hencecodified Muslim Personal Laws. On the other hand, the main sources of law in Pakistan,Bangladesh, Malaysia and Zanzibar are Muslim Laws, with Pakistan and Bangladeshdeclaring Islamic Law as the state religion in their constitutions.Despite the difference in constitutional status granted to religious law there are some parallelsin the effects of application of such laws in these countries. The substance of MuslimPersonal Laws and also the interpretations thereof have given rise to contestation in manycountries, particularly by women’s rights activists. Some questions of concern include: whatconstitutes a valid marriage under Muslim Laws; what are valid religious precepts; what arethe rules of spousal maintenance and child support; what are the rights of spouses in amarriage etc. Though these questions involve the basic tenets of Muslim Personal Laws andgive the impression of certainty as to response and broad consensus on the issues, they havealso evolved into controversies concerning which religious school of interpretation prevails.The criticism is that giving legitimacy to one school of interpretation excludes the beliefs andrights of people who adhere to a different school, and this exclusion amounts todiscrimination on the basis of religious belief. In the South African scenario, the SALRC billis vulnerable to these criticisms, as it gives priority to one school of interpretation over theother. As Shafi and Hanafi schools are the dominant schools of interpretation in SouthAfrica, the legislation tends to exclude Shia practices and certain practices that are particularto the Maliki and Hanbali schools of interpretation. In the interviews conducted, some peopleargued that in choosing one dominant or preferred school of interpretation, the state ismandating what religious practices should be.This argument also raised the broaderquestions of whether a secular state has the authority to define religious mandates, and alsowhether this amounts to a violation of freedom of religion.20One of the reasons articulated by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kenya for the codificationof Muslim Personal Laws is the protection of women from exploitation based on religious9

practices. Unfortunately, women are not protected from exploitation in the above-mentionedcountries or in Nigeria, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. Violations of women’s rights arecommon in executing provisions on divorce, polygynous marriages, custody of children andma

Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), a constitutional body mandated to oversee the promotion and protection of gender equality. Prior to being appointed to the CGE she was involved in social context training for judges and lawyers, where she has designed both content and methodology during her time at