‘Reaching out’ in Sri Lanka – RO gets featured on Young Feminist Wire

By Shifani Reffai

Feminist activist’! The term sounds absolutely intimidating. Actually, I had no intention of turning into a feminist activist when I started out, but I was being called one so I suppose there must be some truth to it.

About a year ago, some friends and I started a non-profit organization called Reach Out. At the beginning, all it was, was about five or six of us meeting early on Sunday mornings along with some cupcakes to talk about society’s perceptions of women. Reach Out soon evolved into something much bigger than we anticipated, and what we started out with – though this isn’t the sole objective of the organization anymore – was a mission to change stereotypes of Muslim women, and not just in Sri Lanka. Today, we generally deal with anything to do with young Sri Lankans, Sri Lankan women and community or social work, and don’t want to limit ourselves to just one type of project.

Everybody knows what the stereotypical Muslim woman is since the Princess series and media sensationalism, right? Let’s not feign ignorance of it. She is sad and oppressed by men, and forced to wear what she doesn’t want to wear. As a woman who has grown up practicing Islam under a wonderful mother who has studied Islam for fifteen years, and as someone who has experienced freedom and love and all that jazz – and never been oppressed by a man in my life, let alone in the name of religion – this stereotype has always been a thorn in my side. I realized a passion, when Reach Out started, to stand on some sort of podium and tell people (because I don’t find many people trying to get rid of the misconception) – that, Hey, I’m Muslim, I’m a woman, my religion unadulterated does not oppress women, Muslim women and women in general do not deserve oppression, and I’m not going to let it happen..

The fact is that Muslim women in many places are being oppressed in the name of religion. And in the process of killing the notion that Islam and gender oppression go hand-in-hand – we longed, I longed, to help these women more than anything else in the world. The thing is in any religion – when ritual takes precedence over spirituality – it tends to become corrupt, when the act of covering one’s hair (and consequently the social normalcy of doing so in one’s conservative community) becomes more important than the personal intention and education before deciding to do so – it becomes oppression.

Why do I cover my hair? I can say ‘this verse in the Qur’aan says so’ or ‘for the modesty Islam encourages in both sexes’ or ‘for the sake of simplicity’ – but, really, all I want to say is, because I want to; and that should suffice. Unfortunately, in many societies, most notably in uneducated ones, people followperceptions of religion without thinking. It is a blind following, like someone in the front had said ‘this way!’ and the rest of them follow on autopilot, not bothering to really check where they are going or if it’s the right way at all.

One thing I learned was that education is critical. People need to read, they need to reassess the things they do in the name of faith. There are girls, friends of mine even, whose parents would say ‘no more studies for you’ on the basis of Islam and immediately look for marriage proposals– but Islam, on the contrary, says any individual, regardless of sex, needs to be constantly absorbing knowledge from the world and contributing to society to their maximum ability; and it’s sort of hard to do that when you’re made to get married at 18 and stay at home against your genuine wishes, don’t you think? And to the men, I wish to ask: what about your daughter’s feelings, her dreams and ambitions? Does Islam tell you to kill them all in one blow in its name too? Ask any scholar and he will tell you that Islam comes from the word ‘Salam’ which means peace. There is nothing peaceful and loving about the death of a woman’s aspirations.

Reach Out’s first major project was going to be a documentary on the oppression of women in Sri Lanka in the name of social norms, but it soon morphed more specifically into Man Up! (see here for an account by our main collaborator Beyond Borders) – A project that addresses sexual harassment against women in public places in Sri Lanka. The age-old problem of being groped on the bus and being recipient of ugly comments on the streets is a much bigger problem than people think. On account of both, my religious and social inclinations in relation to women’s  rights, I discovered that the core problem, and the reason why injustice and the worst types of corruption prevail, is that people have no idea that sexism exists or that it is actually a big problem. The guys who joined our movement against harassment, even my own brother, had no clue that Sri Lankan women were sexually harassed on such a large scale. Because people don’t speak up, people don’t discuss – most importantly, women themselves don’t

In conclusion, I just want to say that being a feminist activist is not holding a placard and yelling at the top of your lungs on the street. It is a lot more work than that, it requires the ability to feel instant responsibility when you see injustice being committed – so much that you feel you simply must do something about it at once, and it requires an equally passionate team, a lot of hard paper work and research. Because it makes no sense to oppress a human being based on their gender, and we find so many doing it anyway. How do you tackle a problem that makes no sense in the first place? Therein lay the epic challenge of anyone fighting for the rights of women.

The original article can be viewed here.

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