This is in response to the call for entries for the Young Feminist Blogathon; thanks for the link, Hanim.
‘Feminist activist’! The term sounds absolutely intimidating. Actually, I had no intention of turning into a feminist activist per se when I started out, but I started getting called one so I suppose there must be some truth to it.
About a year ago, me and some friends started a non-profit organization Reach Out. Well, actually, it’s not as official as it sounds – at the beginning, all it was, was about five or six of us waking up on Sundays (as opposed to sleeping in after a long week’s work) and meeting up, to sit on a mat with some cushions and some cupcakes (yes, cupcakes) and talk things out. Reach Out soon evolved into something quite bigger than what we expected; and what we started out with – though this isn’t the sole objective of the organization anymore – was a mission to change stereotypes made of Muslim women, and not just in Sri Lanka. Today, we generally like dealing 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.
Well everybody knows what the stereotypical Muslim woman is since the Princess series and media sensationalism, right? Let’s not feign ignorance of it. She’s 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 as far as I can help it.
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) became more important than the personal intention and education before deciding to do so – it became 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 follow perceptions 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 were going or if it’s the right way at all.
So one thing I learnt was education is crucial. People need to read; people need to re-assess 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 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; is there anything peaceful and loving about the death of a woman’s aspirations? Does it make sense to you, that a most-gracious and most-beneficent God would order one half of his creations to be forced into dressing and acting a certain way? It doesn’t; and that’s because He hasn’t, and because you need to study your religion from books and learned people, before you practice what you heard on the grapevine.
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 – it is a much bigger problem than you think. On counts 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, either that it exists or that it’s 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 scale. Because people don’t speak up, people don’t discuss – most criminally, women themselves don’t. If you are tackling issues of women, especially in regards to social norms, I say you need to get people to speak up; give them a space and a means of doing it.
I’m sorry, this is far more than 750 words isn’t it? I’m useless at these things.
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.