Sisterhood Initiative Is Fighting For Justice And Inter-Faith Healing in Sri Lanka
Hafsah Muheed on issues facing women in Sri Lanka today and the vital work being done by Sisterhood Initiative to facilitate inter-faith healing across the country.
Could you describe the work you do with the Sisterhood Initiative?
Sisterhood Initiative is a safe space for Muslim women and girls to discuss their challenges safely and freely. While we primarily discuss and advocate for the rights of Sri Lankan Muslim women, our group of over 200 members represents a broad cross-section of faiths and groups from all over our island. Sisterhood Initiative has become a safe space to explore and discuss issues that affect all Sri Lankan women – it has instilled a sense of shared purpose and a feeling of solidarity. Being involved in these conversations has been impactful.
One of the pillars of your organization is the promotion of dialogue – across communities, faiths, viewpoints, etc. What, in your mind, is the importance of dialogue for both local and global communities?
For Sri Lankans, difficult conversations have always been labelled as a taboo. This has contributed towards an escalation of conflict, and indeed hate speech. It is not only an issue in Sri Lanka; it is a threat for democracies globally. Dialogue is critical, not only to world peace, but also to enable individuals to exercise their rights. Open dialogues, like the ones we provide, create a space where individuals are free to share their lived realities, a critical foundation if we want to pursue the goals of peace-building and reconciliation.
What are some of the main issues facing the women of Sri Lanka today – and do you believe the government is doing enough to resolve these issues?
In the year 2023, the women of Sri Lanka are still unable to make decisions that impact the most personal aspect of their lives. Sri Lanka has in place discriminatory family laws that unfairly impact minority groups. For example, the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which is an act reserved for Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, has negatively impacted Sri Lanka’s Muslim women and girls for over three decades. The Act includes provisions that legally allow marriage without a woman’s consent; the act prohibits women from participating in court actions; it allows unconditional polygamy; it even permits child marriages. Muslim women are, thus, actively blocked from having any autonomy. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, gender-based violence is not considered grounds for divorce; abortion is – in effect – criminalized; there is taxation on menstrual products; and sexual harassment in public transport is common. In short, there are a multitude of problems.
Can you give our readers a sense of what it is like to attend a Sisterhood Initiative Ifthar event?
In April of 2023, I had the pleasure of attending the interfaith Ifthar organized by Sisterhood Initiative. The thoughtful perspectives shared during the event reminded me that even though we might belong to diverse faiths, our focus on love and kindness is common. The session was filled with gentle reminders of the importance of listening, of respect, and of prioritizing self-care– and perhaps most importantly, of speaking for oneself as opposed to speaking on behalf of an entire group.
Going around the room, we shared reasons for why we attended the session: I attended the session to find a safe space to remember the victims of the Easter Attack and understand how we can ensure something like it never happens again. The Easter Attack was a point for discussion throughout the event: we discussed the different types of victims and survivors, and the ideas of individual and collective accountability, as well as the appalling incident that occurred on the 9th of April at the interfaith Ifthar in Galle Face where police officers forced a devotee to say a prayer in order to enter the premises.
"We also touched upon how justice looks in the form of civic action and what responsibility beyond dialogue means for all of us."
We also touched upon how justice looks in the form of civic action and what responsibility beyond dialogue means for all of us. One of the sisters in attendance, who wears a niqab, mentioned how people forgot that there was a human being behind her niqab. The participants shared their frustration about the absence of justice, their experiences of discrimination and their fear of prosecution for being an individual of faith. The challenge of inter-faith and intra-faith unity was also shared during the event. A discussion on the different forms of accountability was had and it was stressed that the need for justice is critical and the evening concluded with breaking fast at sunset with a colourful and diverse iftar table with dishes from different communities, where the stories behind each dish was shared. It was a symbolic step towards embracing diversity.
(This answer is concise version of an original article published by Sisterhood Initiative on their blog, which you can check out here.)
"As Sisterhood Initiative works towards our future, we hope to ensure that every woman and girl is shown the dignity they deserve, that they are given the autonomy to make decisions over their own lives."
Finally, what does the future hold for the Sisterhood Initiative?
At its core, Sisterhood Initiative’s message advocates for creating a safe space for all women to come forward. Over the years, we’ve worked on shifting this message to a wider audience but still retaining the very essence of what we do. As Sisterhood Initiative works towards our future, we hope to ensure that every woman and girl is shown the dignity they deserve, that they are given the autonomy to make decisions over their own lives. There is much work in store for our future but work that must be done together. A future for Sisterhood Initiative cannot exist without women.
Hafsah Muheed is a volunteer member at Sisterhood Initiative. She was the former board member of Sri Lanka Unites and is a human rights advocate. In 2022, she was chosen as one of the 30 for 2030 changemakers by UN Women. You can check out her Medium page which publishes her writing here.