By Vijita Fernando, Womens Feature Service
A long-time target of orthodox male Muslim organisations, Jezima Ismail, educationist and activist, combines many roles. Chief among these rests on her firm belief to change the situation of the Muslim woman in the Sri Lankan family and society.
“Male opposition has never stood in my way, not even when a weekly paper started by one of these groups was entirely against me, Jezima Ismail!” she laughs.
In fact, such opposition has encouraged her to double her energies to achieve her aim. As President of the Sri Lanka Muslim Women’s Conference (SLMWC), a consortium of Muslim women’s organisations island-wide, Ismail has over the years unfolded her vision through what she calls “planned change”. Towards this end she has been at the forefront of a series of training programmes, workshops, lecture demonstrations and has had face-to-face interactions with women even in the far-flung rural areas in the country.
“We have to gradually work towards what seems almost like a dream. Hence the need for women’s organisations to understand that Muslim women, like all women, have multiple roles to play in society,” she says.
For most part, Muslim women’s organisations have functioned merely as welfare groups distributing cash handouts and hot meals to the poor. In contrast, the many training programmes organised by the SLMWC are focused on imparting some dynamism to these various groups handling problems specific to Muslim women living in a rigidly patriarchal society.
Muslims in Sri Lanka, including Moors and Malays who are followers of Islam, comprise nine per cent of the country’s total population of 20 million. The general perception of urban Muslims is that they are a wealthy and clannish people with considerable entrepreneurial skills devoted to the welfare of their fellow Muslims.
While many examples can be found of well-educated Muslim women – Ismail is one, as the founder principal of the only Muslim girls’ school in Colombo and as the Chancellor of the Eastern University – who have the ability to demand and get their rights, there are pockets of uninformed, poor, marginalised Muslim women shackled by tradition and patriarchy.
As the co-founder of the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum (RAF), Ismail was at the forefront of a research study on gender based violence that debunked the widespread belief that there was no gender related violence in the Muslim community. The countrywide study concluded that “violence against women in Muslim communities cuts across boundaries of class, social status, education and economic status”. The findings were disseminated at several meetings of policy-makers, religious leaders, educationists and community leaders who, Ismail believes, “responded positively”.
“But statistics do not mean much, when women are uneducated and do not have the confidence to stand up for their rights. The illiteracy rate among Muslim women is 13 per cent, which is much higher than that of Sinhala and Tamil women,” says Ismail.
Apart from training programmes for NGOs, women victims and the men in their families, RAF organises capacity-building workshops for representatives of judges looking after all the provinces in Sri Lanka, in collaboration with Judicial Service Commission, the Muslim Judges Forum and the Chairman of the Board of Judges.
And these trainings are well-received. Badria Bawa, a Muslim activist, for instance, found one such workshop she attended of “great value”. “My work takes me to the north, to pockets of deprived Muslim families where the women are ignorant, apathetic and illiterate. The training has given me a new direction in my work with them, although it is too early to see change,” says the young woman.
Adds Ismail, “It is the apathy and complete lack of self confidence among poor Muslim women I find in some of the rural villages in the Eastern zone of the country that has taken me away from my other work.”
Hailing from Saithamaruthu, a village in the same area, Ismail now spends a week every two months with the women of the villages in the region, encouraging them to engage in activities not only for economic gain, but also to make themselves more self confident.
In addition to her focus on poor Muslim women, Ismail is convinced that unless all the three religious communities in Sri Lanka work together there will be no positive development in any one community. As she explains, “In the area where I was working with Muslim women, there were two neighbouring settlements called the Fifth and Central Colonies. There was no contact between people living in these two areas, as one was a Tamil colony and the other, a Muslim one. This was another challenge I had to take up.”
Ironically both communities face similar problems, like severe water shortages which in the dry heat of the Eastern Province is a huge concern. With financial assistance coming through some donors abroad and with assistance from her husband and family, Ismail decided that water was to be their priority. To her surprise, when the pipes had to be laid, both settlements came together as one to ensure that each home got water in their taps.
Enthused by this change of attitude, Ismail organised handicraft training for women from both colonies – handloom weaving has gained ground and the women have proved adept at mixing colours and designing household items like table cloths, cushion covers, pillow slips and unisex sarongs that are sold in Colombo at periodic exhibitions and also at the RAF centre in a Colombo suburb.
Ismail’s interest and concerns are not only for the women of her community. Her focus is on women across the country. And her tireless work has even been recognised by the State – she has been conferred with one of the highest national honours, Deshabandu. But to her the warm tributes from the women she works with and her colleagues mean much more, she says.
And her colleagues have indeed heaped praise on her. Professor Swarna Jayaweera, Emeritus professor of education, sees her as a “courageous pioneer in establishing institutes and organisations for the advancement of Muslim women in the face of many odds.” Devanesan Nesiah, a Tamil and a fellow member of the Human Rights Committee on Disappearances in Jaffna and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Serious Violations of Human Rights, speaks of Ismail’s social concerns, which were clearly evident during these proceedings and the way her knowledge of Sinhala, Tamil and English made it possible for her to establish close rapport with the witnesses, especially the women who could speak only Tamil.
Concludes Savitri Goonesekera, Emeritus Professor Law, Colombo University, “Jezima’s life and work reinforces our faith in the human potential to hold steadfastly to one’s own community and religious beliefs, and share a common vision of peace and development for all Sri Lankans.”