By Ameer Ali –
The issue of reforming Muslim personal laws and in particular the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act is dragging on without any firm decision from the government. The article by Shreen Abdul Saroor on “Muslim Women’s Rights – When Is The Right Time?” that appeared in this journal (10 October 2017) is in my view a cry in desperation out of prolonged frustration and disappointment not only at the government’s vacillation and indecision but also at the obsequiousness of Muslim intellectuals to speak the truth in front of power. I have already written in this journal (30 November 2016) on some fundamental issues in Muslim women’s struggle for freedom, justice and inequality.
The major problem that Muslim women face in Sri Lanka is their lack of political strength not only to make their preferences decisive at the elections but also to counter and defeat the opposition from religious orthodoxy, which is historically entrenched in championing misogyny. The power and influence of this orthodoxy is so deep and widespread now and especially after the unimpeded penetration and spread of ultraconservative Salafist and Wahhabi ideologies that it can even impose unspecified threats and sanctions against not only Muslim women groups but also against Muslim intellectuals and Muslim community leaders who try to overstep their designated social and religious boundaries. An orthodoxy claims universal authority and has the power to impose penalties on those who are disobedient. Progressive Muslim women groups should understand the formidability of this opposition and unless they strengthen their political power it will be too difficult to win their battle for equality and justice. These opponents may agree to introduce some cosmetic changes in the legal status quo but not for a fundamental reform. This may be the final outcome of the current attempt to reform the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act.
The government and the Muslim politicians who are members of it are more worried of capturing the Muslim vote bank than listening to the agony of Muslim women without of course realising an obvious fact that at least one half of that bank consists of women. From the government’s point of view, the Muslim vote bank has been historically crucial in Sri Lanka’s electoral politics that it would be suicidal for politicians to jeopardise their political future by antagonizing the religious orthodoxy that has an overwhelming influence in Muslim electorates. What has been a historical fact with regard to the power and influence of Buddhist monks in Sinhalese electorates is currently true of the Muslim ulema, a growing phenomenon that requires serious political analysis. I know of at least one religious leader in the Eastern Province who used his followers votes as bargaining chip to win favours from a local politician.
One only has to attend and listen to the misogynic sermons dished out during Friday prayers where the imams fervently justify the prevailing gender inequality as equality in their version of the Divine Law, the sharia. What is more the women are disallowed to attend these sermons right throughout the country. Here lies a major issue for Muslim women to fight for and win: the right to enter mosques to pray. It is a sad reflection of Islam as practiced in Sri Lanka that while women are disallowed in mosques to perform their daily prayers their dead bodies are taken inside the mosque to conduct the funeral prayer. Even to this prayer, women are not allowed to join in. This was not true of historical Islam or of Islam in other countries. Isn’t it time for the Sri Lankan Muslim women to demand the mosques be open for them too?
If religious orthodoxy is obstinate towards promoting gender equality Muslim intellectuals are obsequious to this obstinacy or not willing to support the women’s cause openly. It is a strange irony that these intellectuals and community leaders, who are otherwise publicly vociferous in advancing the cause of rationalism and secular thoughts, remain mute or ambivalent when it comes to the status of Muslim women. Why is this ambivalence and pseudo neutrality? Once again it shows the intellectuals’ fear of the power of orthodoxy. An ulema’s collective like the Jamiatul Ulema has an ultimate weapon to pronounce recalcitrant intellectuals as heretics which would tarnish the public image of those individuals. If that is the reason for the muteness can these intellectuals rightly be called intellectuals? All in all, a resourceful and influential orthodoxy in combination with an indecisive government and irresolute Muslim intelligentsia have progressively abandoned Muslim women’s struggle for equality and justice. In essence, Muslim women have been collectively orphaned.
In such a disappointing environment Muslim women should strengthen themselves by politically becoming more active and transact their share of the vote bank to maximise winnings for gender equality and justice. A similar struggle by Indian Muslim women is gaining support from some unexpected quarters and has eventuated in favourable court rulings. It is indeed a tough call in Sri Lanka but with support from non-Muslim quarters your eventual victory is assured.
Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia