Crucial takeaway from marriage bill controversy

Civil law must protect the rights of people concerning freedom from violence and exploitation

Peter Jacob September 15, 2019
The writer is a freelance journalist specialising in international law, rural development and public policy. He can be reached at

In a briefing on August 20, the Federal Information Minister announced that the Cabinet had approved the Christian Marriage and Divorce Act 2019 which would replace the Christian Marriage Act 1869 and Divorce Act 1872. People aware of the difficulties attached to the antique laws, and those who had spent time and energy advocating this change, have long awaited this good news.

Nevertheless, the Minister’s cautious remark “in principle approval” signalled a baggage attached to it, though it did not transpire what had happened a day earlier.

On the initiation of the Centre for Social Justice, a research and advocacy organisation including Dr Alexander John Malik, Dr Yaqoob Bangash, Jurist Jamshed Rehmatullah and this writer, it had been conveyed to the government that the draft maintained some blatant mistakes. It carried several inconsistencies including the provision of the jurisdiction of English courts in matters concerning divorce and penalty of transportation of convicts; a replica of the colonial law which needs to be removed.

The draft bill defined the term “Christian”, besides naming a few churches in the preamble, a way of recognising some and leaving others. The dangerous consequences of these propositions cannot be ignored. Worried at the lack of regard for their opinion, the group of experts went public about their reservations, which were carried by national media on August 21 and 22.

The Federal Ministry of Human Rights, which drafted and moved the bill in parliament, was found agitating that the draft incorporated parts recommended by some responsible authorities of the Church, though that is no excuse to overlook inconsistencies. The churches part of the consultation process entailing the recommendations given to the Ministry, on the invitation of Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, were initially clueless on how to respond to the changing landscape including the dogmatic difference regarding issues such as divorce.

Imaginably, several claims to be the voice of the Christian cause, making it difficult for authorities to see which of the often opposing views to accept. The situation can be confusing for Christians disconnected from the mainstream discourse. Here are my two cents about the issues and how to move forward.

The government and stakeholders must act responsibly with the law-making process as the dispensation of justice and equality in marriage relations is the domain of civil law. Hence, the final draft’s content should be left to legal and human rights experts. Stakeholders can give their input once the draft proceeds in parliament. It is important they seek an explanation on the merits of provisos before objecting.

Moreover, although marriage, divorce, inheritance and maintenance laws depend on personal belief and customs of the concerned communities, the civil law cannot replace, cancel or be subservient to religious law. Civil law must protect the rights of people concerning freedom from violence and exploitation.

Religious freedom is an individual right while collective or communitarian part of the right is a procedural aspect of the freedom of religion and not the very substance of it. With this law-making process, the Christian community’s religious, political and social leadership must try to treat the disconnect with changing realities, fragmentation and fake agency among its people, that was created by undemocratic governance and deprivations in the past decades.

The law-making process should be participatory. Not only should the Christian community or clergy have a say in this legislation, but all those who can contribute meaningfully as well.

The Federal Ministry of Human Rights’ inclusion of the recommendations given by the Centre for Social Justice and Peoples Commission for Minorities Rights is much appreciated. With the draft bill submitted in the National Assembly now, one can hope that the confusions are removed and the legislation will not face any obstacles.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2019.

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