I’m sure all of us are acquainted to some degree or the other about gender based violence and violence against women issues. The immediate ones that come to mind of course are the most visible – physical and sexual abuse/harassment/ violence against women and girls. The other more subtle but equally harmful forms being verbal, psychological and economic abuse and violence to name a few. Many of us may or may not be aware of the root causes of gender based violence. It is assumed given context, situation and scenario to be different reasons, ranging from – 1) the perspective of the perpetrator-: alcoholism, lack of poverty, lack of education, a perverted mindset etc and 2) the perspective of the victim-survivor –: her behavior, her dress, her actions which may have led to/causes violence etc. In reality these are excuses, alibis, myths and assumptions. The root of it all is power relations and inequality – the underlying notion that males of a society have more power than females. This premise sets tone for gender roles to be designated to men and women and has for centuries spurned the practices of society through its best friend – the patriarchal ideology which together with power inequality has resulting impacts ranging from control and discriminations to violence and abuse against women and girls.
The patriarchal ideology deeply embedded in centuries of human life, has inturn some key ingredients that make it strong and compounded, again these differ from context, country and community, but one of its strongest is religion. Religion has for centuries been the perfect disguise under which to serve the masses certain principles, norms and values not necessarily derived from the belief in a Creator/process of creation, or the founders of that particular religion. Its come down to us as non-negotiables, unquestionable, no-answerables, when infact that particular religion whichever it may be, may encourage exploration, self understanding, questioning, debates and discussions. In certain context, particularly when it comes to women, the machinery of patriarchal ideology uses religion as ‘the’ tool to enforce norms and behavior to the extent that religion is altered and converted to suit a particular sex/gender of a particular community.
In my opinion there are two major issues/points of contention (among others) when it comes to religion and women 1) the raw religion and its stance on its female constituency and gender roles between its members and 2) how religion has been taken, changed and altered to suit the patriarchal ideology. While the former point of contention requires indepth study, research and a good knowledge of theology and religion, the latter is more easily detectable, obvious and glaring in daily life situations and it is on this point of contention that I want to raise some questions. Being a Muslim woman my questions are obviously targeted towards the practice of Islamic customs within a conservative, traditionalist Muslim community of Sri Lanka. There are many questions but let’s begin with some basic ones around practices of marriage, because those have the most obvious examples.
I would like to know, for one why in the world we cannot sign our own marriage forms in this country? Or worse we cannot sign it because we belong to a certain madhab (school of thought) and not the other? If God has given me right to consent and stresses it over and over in His ‘revelations’, who is man to deny it of me in the very document that symbolizes consent? And please don’t give me a ‘because she can’t come to the mosque during the nikah (marriage)’ tosh when other Muslim countries/countries with Muslim populations have it as a prerequisite. Could this be an indication of the deeper underpinnings to the way marriages are done here? An indication of the lack of gravity, seriousness and value given to Muslim bridal consent in this country? An indication of the reigns of control imposed on women and girls by the male members of her family? That the marriage of a woman and man is not a relationship of equals?
I would also like to know, why is it that a large percentage of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka practice dowry when it is forbidden by the religion under which we say we belong to? How come women and their families are these days expected to come ready made with cash and houses and gold? When there is no doubt that religion states that Muslim women’s families do not need to bare any cost in the act of marriage. Please tell me why many mosque and community leaders haven’t been able intervene in this issue? And many claim its not their area to intervene when marriages cannot even occur without a religious leader? On a related note, please also tell me how come we have a clause for and a space to write ‘kaikuli’ (a very clever disguise for ‘moveable assets *cough*dowry*cough*’) given by bride party in the marriage registration forms and the law that governs us Muslims? So if it benefits the men of the community, its in practice even if it’s dishonored in religion, but God given rights to women are taken away? Excuse me O.o
These are some basic tenets on which families and communities are founded in Muslim society and their consequences fall on women as individuals and as members of a Muslim population. While we do not have clear records/statistics of the number of women who may have been affected by practices of non-consent, pressured/forced marriages, dowry issues, ask any Muslim and we’ll probably be able to tell you more than one such case that we know of. Ask someone who works on Muslim community issues and she/he will be able to tell you hundreds. I am merely taking two such examples of the way religion has been altered to dance to the tune of discriminatory ideology, there are many many more. The answers to these questions are slow and difficult in coming, but we as members of a particular religious community that we say we belong to better figure these out. Religion is equally striving towards a good and better hereafter as it is towards a good and better today here and now.