25 July, 2024


We Are The Leaders We Have Been Waiting For……

By Soraya Marikar Deen

Soraya M. 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.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Insha Allah.. This nice Lady lives in LA..

    I was so worried where she was residing ..

    Because the Immam United in Lankawe would have issued a joint Fatwa for sure , classifying all what she has written as Haram…

    On another front. I thought the Muslim Community also was divided into haves and have nots just like us who follow the UNP and other parties.

    When I read Messers Bathudeen , Kabir Hasheem and Mujibur Rahuman doing Business together as one group with the deported Turkish FATSO , I was sort of bemused..

    Wonder whether Rauf Hakeem our ex UNP Justice Minister had anything to do with them too?..

    • 5

      Soraya M. Deen,

      ” The Imam informed me that, “It is haram for women to be at the mosque.”

      You’re trying to keep your feet into two boats when you talk about women rights, and to talk about Islam. And also, you took a bad example to flaunt gender inequality by picking women not being allowed into mosques. Because you’re suggesting to create more extremists & more self-suppression by sending women to mosques and listen to those uneducated Imams. This will also make their motherly duties look frivolous (5 times X daily). Keeping the damage at 50% less is better at the moment.

  • 7

    The so-called Imaams in Sri Lanka are utterly uneducated. They freely use words such as haram and halaal without a deep study.

    The holiest place in the world for Muslims is Mecca. Women and men pray, intermingle and get about their spiritual journey in Mecca without any restrictions. Women are not prevented from entering the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In Sri Lanka, a mosque built in a Buddhist land, is so sacred to these Imaams that they say it is haram to enter the mosque. What bigotry!

  • 3

    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.

    Brand of Islam

    There is only one god lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh (There is no deity except God), and muḥammadun rasūlu llāh (Muhammad is the messenger of God),

  • 3

    Soraya Marikar Deen ,

    RE: We Are The Leaders We Have Been Waiting For……

    “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.”

    Thanks f or your article.

    According to the so-called Ulama, Mullahs, Moulavis and “scholars’ interpretations, the women are:

    .1. Chattel, things owned by men., like goats, sheep and chicken. So they are transferred from one owner to the other., all me,

    2. Chattel must follow rules established by the owners. Can they go to school? Can they study? Can they ride a bike? A car? Can they travel without a chaperone, not being leashed?

    3. The Chattel are slaves.

    4. They Quote the Quran.


    5. They Quote thew Hadith, the sayings of Prophet Mohamed.

    Then there are conflicting information on the Quran and Hadith, the Ulama, just pushes infer the rug, like the flat earth, the Sun going around the earth, etc. that is in conflict with modern knowledge.

    Basically, Islam has been taken over by men, for their own self–interest and hegemony. Not much different fro Buddhism and Christianity. Just read about what Buddha said to Ananda about women: keep away from them.

  • 4

    The writer states : The Imam informed me that “It is haram for women to be at the mosque.”
    Clearly, the person in question is totally unfit to be an ‘imam’ of any mosque. It is these half-baked religious ‘scholars’ who give Islam a bad name. They propagate their version of Islam by rejecting sahih (authentic) hadith on this subject.
    This is what the relevant hadiths say.

    Hadith 1 : The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from going to the mosque of Allah.’
    [Sahih Muslim Book 4 Hadith No.886]
    Hadith 2 : And husbands were specifically told by him, “If the wife of any one of you asks permission (to go to the mosque) do not forbid her.”
    [Bukhari :: Book 1 :: Volume 12 :: Hadith 832]
    Hadith 3 : Yahya related to me from Malik that he had heard that Abdullah ibn Umar said, “The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, ‘Do not forbid the female slaves of Allah from (going into) the mosques of Allah.’ “
    [Malik :: Book 14 : Hadith 14.5.12]
    Hadith 4 : Narrated Ibn `Umar: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “If your women ask permission to go to the mosque at night, allow them.”
    [Sahih al-Bukhari 865 : Vol. 1, Book 12, Hadith 824]
    Just imagine the damage these misguided imams must be doing to the religious knowledge of the the members of their congregation – especially the children.

    • 1

      The writer is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Probably the imam knows about her .She is a mischief maker and the daughter of a Tamil mother and a Muslim father who is FUNDED by a JEWISH RABBAI from Chicago with different agenda. She goes around SL taking photos of herself PRETENDING to be praying facing the wrong direction of the Qibla, while there are markings showing the direction. She prays with a short sleeved salwar, head not covered properly with nail enamel and wearing a “pottu” which are all not recommended for a female while praying and the prayers are not accepted.

      Ppl be aware of her and don’t let your mothers, sisters, daughters be lead astray by this woman who has NO knowledge of the Quran or Ahadeeth, but is an agent of the Jewush Rabbai who felicitates most of her travel even to Israel.

      Read about her and do some research…

  • 3

    Why not you lead prayers too as some crazy lady do in some western countries

  • 3

    Let’s stand on the history.

    We know that women face sexual violence in conflict and untold hardships in post-conflict reconstruction. Their lands and resources are grabbed from actors. in the name of development, reforom plucking women in the name of gender equality is hapening and in our mosques protection of such is requiredThe authorized interpretations typically controlled by older men pre define systematically step up for the protection of all women value ,

  • 7

    Way to go, Soraya. Keep up the principled fight on behalf of the women of Islam. Do not yield an inch to the reactionary fundamentalists and Salafists. We are with you all the way. The Sa’udis have now relaxed the rule on headscarves and the face veil. Women can now drive and no longer need to be accompanied by a male guardian when they step out of their homes. If the Sa’udis can do it, why not the Sri Lankan Muslim? It’s time to do away with the Abaya and Niqab.

    • 4

      Ridwan, Don’t you and the author understand that Muslilm women sow what they reap as irresponsible mothers? Letting children off the leash in everything then look for cure? Fighting extremism begins at home, period

  • 2

    Just because you have a Muslim name does not give you the right, knowledge, or judge everything about Islam.

    First, talk to a Muslim Scholar if you want to get a real perspective and understanding about Islam. But, if you want to keep beating the trodden path of media bias and satisfy the masses to get a few applauses, then stop the pretense.

    If you are very sincere in correcting the Muslim community of cultural issues, then talk to the community, not to display your insincerity to dance in public for everyone’s pleasure.

    • 0

      I bet this girl can’t cook; my mother used to tell “Being a feminist is the best trick to stay away from kitchen”. Poor girl is bit upset after being picnicked to an Imam, apparently a wrong choice to spend some precious leisure time.

  • 2

    Where was Soraya Deen during Aluthgama and Digana incidents?

    She is very brave talking about Muslims, eh!

    When the going gets tough, the tough goes shopping.

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