By Chenelle Fernando
Groups are created every day, every moment – be it at school, work, university, or even on social media – but this particular group we’re going to talk about stands above the average.
Recently, we stumbled upon quite an interesting bunch called Sisterhood Initiative. This unique initiative was founded by Nabeela Iqbal, who is currently an undergraduate in environmental science at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Apart from being engaged in this initiative, Iqbal is also an Advocate Champion of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS).
In simple, the Sisterhood Initiative works towards the creation of a platform for Muslim women to engage in discussions, find a sense of belonging, and raise awareness on cases of injustice particularly encountered by Muslim women around the country. “Our ultimate goal is to create a space – a platform for people to talk. Through this, awareness will be created on many issues, out of which one is the MMDA (Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act) reform,” said Iqbal.
It was an event for Muslim youths conducted in Colombo that had ignited Iqbal’s interest. She had observed the lack of representation by Muslim women at the panel, notwithstanding the fact that the event asserted how beneficial and inclusive it was.
“You would think that in Colombo, you’d find an influential Muslim woman, but there was none and it was a mixed event as well. So I thought if you can’t find a seat for you at the table, you’ve got to make your own, bring your own chair or making your own table,” she noted.
Upon this incident, Iqbal spoke up about it through her Instagram TV video, which, as she indicated, had attracted a vast number of Muslim girls on Instagram who were supposedly quiet with anonymous accounts but no longer wished to stay quiet. In fact, it was after this incident the commencement of the initiative had potentially begun – by laying out a Google doc to link all these girls together to form a WhatsApp group. As indicated by Iqbal, one of the main criticisms cast at Muslims was the fact that they tend to keep to themselves, and this initiative also works towards minimising this effect. “A huge criticism we get as Muslims is that we are sort of glued to people we know, so this initiative is also somewhat aimed at breaking that off.”
With the participation of 35 individuals, the group’s inaugural meeting took place on 19 January in Colombo. The meeting, as Iqbal explained, took place with the participation of Hasanah Cegu Issadeen. Issadeen, an advocate at the Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group (MPLRAG), explained to the participants the reforms and current repeals that were taking place with the MMDA, as well as some of the travesties and injustices encountered by Muslim women around the island.
“When we had this event in Colombo, there were girls in Kandy who could not make it and they asked if we could do the same thing in Kandy,” stated Iqbal, going on to explain the second gathering in the form of a workshop which took place in Kandy. With the attendance of nearly 45 participants, the workshop comprised sessions and content lined up by the organisers, adding to it a discussion on awareness of the injustice endured by Muslim women through the MMDA.
Exemplifying this to be a great opportunity for Muslim women to stand their ground, Iqbal said: “Even at that event, what a lot of women told me was they don’t have a platform where they could comfortably come and discuss issues. In our community, it’s mostly the men who get a speaking position. Even a listening position. They have their Friday Jummah prayers where they at least congregate, whereas women don’t have that, unless they are enrolled at a madrasa (university). But even here, there is no conversation or discussion element.”
The group is presently inclusive of Muslim and non-Muslim girls from around the country, with prime emphasis placed on the areas of Colombo and Kandy. Awestruck by the response her single video won, Iqbal contended that girls participated by placing trust on the process. “People who just watched my video signed up on my Google sheet and came. So there was a mix,” she added.
While the crowd in Colombo mostly consisted of young individuals, the workshop in Kandy saw the presence of girls who attended the event with their mothers. The diverse nature of the event held in Kandy could be observed from its participants who had arrived from Akurana, Kandy, Matale, Gampola, Mawanella, etc.
We were intrigued to have noted that the participants of the group aren’t just limited to Muslim girls; a bulk of the group’s work is carried out by non-Muslims. “It’s really nice because when they go to Kandy and they are working with us, people see two communities almost working towards the same goal. When it comes to a lot of the issues we face in our community, even with the MMDA reforms, it is everyone’s tax money that is involved. The tax money doesn’t check if you’re Muslim or Sinhalese.”
Points of discussion and findings
The group, as we learnt, had discussed numerous challenges faced by the women of this community, which have presently snowballed into issues gathering substantial weight. What it’s like to be a girl, what it’s like to be a Muslim, and what it’s like to be a Muslim girl were the questions that formed the basis of the group’s discussions.
Iqbal included menstruation taboos, judgement, working Muslim women being stereotyped and profiled, and judgement based on clothing to be the flaring issues in today’s context. Reiterating on the clothing problem in particular, Iqbal said: “How strong your faith is would be judged by what you’re wearing. There is a huge cultural element to it, like how much you cover and your modesty defines how strong your faith is, and everything else is not taken into consideration.”
The meeting in Kandy, as we were informed, presented itself to be a great platform for its participants to shed light on external pressures on early marriages. The focus, which was primarily placed on marriage and not education, saw these women to be in jeopardy. “If they’re doing both, the stress is higher, and then you have to do well in work as well as make sure you have children. There is a huge cultural ‘oh, you are responsible if something goes wrong in the family’ attitude,” she added.
Finally, Iqbal asserted that she was able to witness that with the progression of the programme, the participants pled for the mic. The more taboo a topic were, the more open and keen the participants were in wanting to share their thoughts and ideas on prevailing issues. For instance, Iqbal explained: “Even if your proposal breaks down and you have to marry someone else, we look at these women in a different light. There were girls telling other people ‘don’t judge them’. It almost became like a therapy session; everyone was very open about topics, and the menstruation topic went on for a really long time.”
Whilst hoping to make its Colombo meetings more regular, the group plans to host its next line of workshops in the areas of Akurana, Sainthamaruthu, and Matale. Iqbal hopes to organise meetings with men as well for the purpose of engaging them in the MMDA reforms discussion.
The group hosts a fundraiser, as with the growth of any organisation expenses become inevitable. To get in touch for more details on how you can contribute, email email@example.com