By Muqaddassa Wahid
Girls in Sri Lanka have been going through many issues since time unknown. Almost all generations have faced similar issues. Yet, a space to speak up on these issues was limited. However, when it came to Muslim girls- they faced an enormous number of issues with the implementation of gender discriminatory laws such as the MMDA and cultural restrictions that come with being a Sri Lankan Muslim girl. And the space to talk about such issues? Almost next to none! And that was what empowered Nabeela Iqbal to start off ‘The Sisterhood Initiative’- a group where girls of any faith can join and actively campaign against issues they face.
On Sunday 19 th January 2020, more than 30 young ladies of 18- 35 years of age gathered in Colombo for the inaugural session of ‘Sisterhood Initiative’. The topic for that day centered around the MMDA and volunteerism. Hasanah Cegu Issadeen, a women’s rights activist and a member of the Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group (MPLRAG) gave an interesting yet insightful view on the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA). She spoke about its history, its content and drawbacks, history of reforms, the way it affects Muslim women and its current status. The discussion on MMDA was very much timely as it comes weeks after a Private Members Bill to abolish the MMDA was presented by Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero to the Parliament. Through Ms. Cegu Issadeen’s speech, the girls understood the horrors certain sector of the Muslim ladies married under the MMDA face.
It is to be noted that in many parts of Sri Lanka, underage marriages take place in Muslim
households due to it being allowed under the MMDA and this has challenged the rights of these young women who are taken out of schools and turned into inexperienced wives and mothers and the horrors they face. Also due to the divorce provisions in the act being gender discriminatory, it has also challenged the rights of women especially in the rural areas such as the Eastern and North Western Provinces. Ms. Cegu Issadeen also pointed out the startling differences between the Holy Quran and the MMDA, proving that the MMDA is in dire need of reforms rather than repeal. Hafsa Mazahim’s personal experiences as a volunteer struck a chord amongst every girl in the room. Her struggles to make her parents understand what she was doing and how she overcame it were insightful. Mazahim’s eye opening experiences along with her witty anecdotes of being a Muslim girl hailing from the conservative city of Beruwala and her society’s backlash on her being a volunteer, freely mixing with guys and girls alike, whilst sending the girls in peals of laughter was sadly too close to home. Cultural restrictions was something every Sri Lankan girl could relate to, despite being of different religious and cultural backgrounds. The lack of parental encouragement and societal encouragement for girls in volunteering is a sad truth in Sri Lanka, a country known for its generosity and humanitarian nature.
However, girls were left in shock as Razni Razick, founder of Care Station, shared her volunteering experiences. Having worked as a psychologist, Ms. Razick went on to volunteer at a children’s home where most of the children were street children. Ms. Razick’s volunteering experiences contrasted Mazahim’s in the manner that Mazahim’s parents knew she was volunteering yet not Ms. Razick’s. Ms. Razick volunteered at this home for 3 years without the knowledge of her parents who only came to know of this as she was getting married! Talk about a strong willed lady! Ms. Razick’s determination, will power and her intense passion for caring for orphans, street children and children from abusive homes led her to opening her own children’s home ‘Care Station’ and up to date, she continues brightening up the lives of children through her various voluntary activities like her recently concluded island wide ‘Back to School’ campaign, where under privileged children were provided with the necessary stationaries and facilities to start off their new school year.
The inaugural session left the ladies in high spirits as they were inspired to volunteer and also understand the MMDA. The session concluded with the ‘Sisterhood’ planning their next session in Kandy on 8th February 2020.