By Soraya Marikar Deen –
One of the greatest challenges facing Sri Lankan Muslim women is that our bodies and our identities are being defined and determined by religious actors on all sides. Whether they ought to wear a burqa (even the colour) or whether they should remove it, whether a girl should marry at 16 or 18, whether women should seek justice from the dysfunctional Qazi courts or stand the risk of being ostracized are all determined by men.
Having traveled across the Island this past two weeks, I am appalled at the abysmal treatment of women in the community. What has systematically happened is that in the guise of protecting and preserving Islam, women have been deprived and denied of their agency to have a relationship with the creator and the community. What is interpreted as haram and halal by the religious leadership, has robbed us of our basic human rights and freedoms.
Mosques bereft of our women….
In Valachchenai I asked an Imam I met at an Interfaith gathering if I could visit the mosque later, for prayers and to meet with some women in the community. The Imam informed me that, “It is haram for women to be at the mosque.” My encounters and experiences at several other mosques were no different.
Microaggressions, dismissing female participation inside mosques that make women uncomfortable are well known. But in the 21st century to declare that women are not welcome in mosques is a violation and serious crime. It is sad when even moderate Muslims dont speak up and fail to uderstand the point that Islam is about Social Justice, and its gets lost in the structures of patriarchy and mysoginy and the women have to continue to endure this.
In the village of Kottmabapitiya, after several hard fought meetings and communications with the Muslim leadership, an interfatih womens exchange was organized for about 25 Muslim women. They were excited and the gal who was my point of contact was eager and curious about the program and stayed in close touch with me throughout our planning. On that Friday night, the Imam cancelled the workshop scheduled for the following day. He said they had to attend a wedding! The gal called me and implored me not to give up on them and to reschedule the gathering. We are working on the possibility.
I write these accounts not to impress anyone but to impress upon everyone that our community is seriously lacking in engaging our women to lead and participate in social change.
The Saints of the status quo….
Today Muslim women have a crucial role to play in confronting these issues of gender equality and we must be prepared to face this problem head on. We must promote a real and honest dialogue—free of political correctness and comforting lies—about the true nature of patriarchy and outworn traditions upheld in our community. We must challenge religion based oppression, dominance and violence in all its forms. Our failure to acknowledge and recognize and reevaluate these violations and injustices have provided legitimacy for the practices to continue unabated. Time is up. The community can’t afford to fail to advocate for these much needed changes to the systemic oppression of women in their quest for participation, justice and equal treatment.
This dangerous posture of the irrational fear of women’s leadership is too dangerous to be left without scrutiny because at risk is our youth, our safety and security and the steps we must all take to combat bigotry and extremism that is on the rise in our country. It is also dangerous because it stifles the voices of a vast majority of Muslim men and women here and abroad who genuinely support reform and are desirous of acknowledging how a political Islam veiled in patriarchy has swept across our nation and the world.
The Qazi Women……
I have watched with dismay for too long the compromises that we continue to make in the name of religious sensitivities. If we continue to silence and deny Muslim women thier human rights, it will become nearly impossible for Muslims to abandon an extreme belief in religious purity and embrace a just society.
On March 3rd, at Omnia Institute, we convened a Muslim RoundTable in Colombo. The goal was to initiate an intimate dialogue and discussion with professionals, academics and activists about a path forward. We considered this urgent especially in light of the fear-tinged, media driven national discourse on Muslims after the tragic attack on Easter Sunday. The basis was to explore an alternative narrative, one that did not advance theology but enhanced citizenship.
By some means my call went viral. I had close to 20 Muslim women call me. The women had suffered untold hardships at the Qazi courts. They were angry, disappointed and demanded justice. They were open and self critical of the system and the powers behind it.
They were able to distinguish between human rights and religious dogma. Where the majority of Muslims maintained silence in the name of religious sensitivities, these women were determined to speak out. They had nothing to lose.
SAdly though we are not mobilized to reach out to the most marginalized women and girls impacted by rising inequalities and multiple forms of discrimination accross our country. We have no formula for strengthening accountability for gender equality in our community either. We have fragile women’s movements exerting some measure of influence in policy decisions – they need our support as we must focus on engaging more men as gender equality advocates.
It’s time for Sri Lankan Muslims to open any and every channel of review to award equality and promote gender justice for women in our community. We must acknowledge the barriers faced by women. We must challenge our faith, scripture, and traditions.
Crucial to reform is the need to create and maintain a non discriminatory gender inclusive mosque environemt where we engage and empower Muslim women in religious leadership and promote gender equality in our mosques. We must teach our youth a new brand of Islam, one that is compatible with Sri Lankan values and not that of the Middle East.
Only urgent and sustained action can transform the norms and traditions, structures and scriptures that are holding back progress on gender equality. In the absence of strong moral leadership from within the community we see today a declaration of intent from certain Buddhist clergy demonstrating strong, determined agitation to advance dissent and debate on many issues impacting the Muslim world which includes women’s rights.
While Islam does have a strong tradition of interpretation, which leaves open the possibility of alternative theological orientations, the conservative attitude tends to be closed to internal or external critical questioning or evaluation. The authorized interpretations typically controlled by older men systematically marginalizes women, who are the most adversely affected. Consequently, the primary energy for change is coming from women, who may be the most potent force for change.
Building a framework for a progressive Islamic theology requires an impetus that comes from the Muslim community itself. It requires Islamic theologians, lawyers, politicians and community leaders at the table. It requires generating ideas and providing a support base for Muslim theologians, scholars and opinion leaders who can shift the cultural conversation. It also requires grassroots activists like my sisters who are Qazi Women!
Challenging Received Theology …..
We must build a theological framework that shifts Muslim theology’s attitudes of supremacy and its violation of the human rights of women in the name of religious traditions and customs. We must identify, recruit and train passionate interlocutors and educate them on contextual realities and empower them to build and strengthen like minded core teams across villages and cities. . Majority of the participants will be women but will include few men. Among the participants will be maulavis, civic and religious leaders, academics and students, youth and community leaders.
Our learning must focus on building a Bottom Up theology and not instituting a Top Down ideology.
OUr outreach must include and engage the participants in understanding the history and tradition of Islamic interpretation. It will make the case for why a new framework is needed now, given the crisis that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka faces, particularly in the context of expanding global movements such as Wahhabism. Participants will engage in discussions about methodologies of how to deconstruct received theologies that promote violence and extremism, the mistreatment of women and be able to build up contextual theologies that promote pluralism.
We must build a global acceptance of the new hermeneutical framework that this process will initiate (a framework that deconstructs received theologies and builds up contextual theologies.)
Muslim women and girls will enjoy legal protections, rights and liberties enjoyed by all other Sri Lankan citizens. We will engage Non-Muslim women to stand by us and be encouraged and energized to undertake similar reforms in their own communities.
Our work is challenging. Our investments are minimal… I urge you to look ahead to creating a more sustainable, inclusive and equal world. We must create a new generation of gender equality advocates to join us and to advance this cause.
Let’s stand on the right side of history.
*Soraya Marikar Deen is a Lawyer, an award winning International Activist and the founder of the first Muslim Women Speakers Bureau. She is the Co-Founder of the Interfaith Solidarity Network one of the largest Interfaith Organizations in Los Angeles, and Peacemoms, a group which promotes dialogue between Muslims and Christians. She is the lead organizer for Women’s Initiatives at Omnia Institute.