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Sharmila Seyyid: Living in Exile

2015 May 07

Sharmila Seyyid: Living in Exile

By Waruni Karunarathne

Sharmila Seyyid, a poet, novelist, journalist and social worker from Eravur in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka came under various harassment and social media attacks at the hand of certain Islamic groups following an interview she gave to the Tamil Radio Service of the BBC in 2012 highlighting a social reality. After facing harassment and intimidation she fled the country and still lives in exile.

In the interview with the Tamil Radio Service of the BBC, Ms. Sharmila Seyyid, had voiced the opinion that sex workers may be better protected if prostitution was legalized in response to a question from the BBC reporter. This comment drew a significant backlash from a section of the Muslim community in the area and elsewhere prompting her to issue a clarification. In her clarification, she had emphasized that she was “…only highlighting a social reality and did not intend to defy Islamic tenets” and also expressed “regret if she had unwittingly hurt anyone’s sentiments”.

Despite her clarification, fundamentalists with no boundaries carried out cyber-attacks and went into the extent to ruining her image online and she was ‘raped’ and ‘murdered’ in social media as a mean of sending her a warning for taking a stand on a social platform. A close friend of Sharmila and a women’s right activist added that after Sharmila went in to hiding, Sharmila’s sister had become the target of these unruly attacks of certain group of the Muslim community which has resulted in sabotaging her marriage. Sharmila’s sister who is still in the Eastern Province looking after their parents is going through a worse nightmare having to relocate themselves several time due to continuous harassment and to avoid the groups who are targeting them. Sharmila’s sister had been in and out of the police station, quazi court and Human Rights Commission (HRC) Batticaloa office many times demanding justice – but to date no action has been taken to ensure the safety of this family or to prevent these continuous harassment from happening. When theSunday Leader contacted Sharmila’s sister, she refused to comment in fear of attracting further attacks from those fundamentalist groups – silencing her sufferings.

Many observed that fundamentalist groups – not only Islamic but also other religious extremists groups in the country have been doing a lot of damage especially further marginalizing women in the society in the pretext of so-called culture and morality – only with the intention to further subjugate women.

Recently, Muslim Civil Society issued a statement against the continued harassment of Sharmila and her family and urged the authorities to ensure that ‘a thorough and fair investigation is conducted with regards to the complaints received by the aggrieved parties and hold those responsible for misconduct accountable’.

“While we acknowledge that prostitution is prohibited in Islam (as in many other religions), we nevertheless uphold that Ms. Seyyid is within her rights and freedoms to express her personal views; and condemn all forms of harassment, intimidation and hatred by vigilante groups and individuals that are justified based on claims to the above. While we acknowledge and respect that feelings may have been hurt and sensibilities offended, we also categorically state that defaming, harassing and inciting violence against a person for holding a different opinion, in this case a woman, is unacceptable and not within the spirit of the faith, and can also be deemed a contravention of the law. If people feel themselves to have been wronged, due process should be followed to seek redress,” Muslim Civil Society noted in their statement.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, the Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) Hilmi Ahamad added that as far as the religion is concerned it is very clear that prostitution has no space among the Islamic teachings – but Ms. Seyyid commented on a social perspective on the ground that those women who are engaged in prostitution may be better protected if it is legalized – so these women have recourse to justice.

“Many women all over the world are being exploited by prostitution. True, that there is absolutely no space within Islam for prostitution but Ms. Seyyid commented on a social perspective. She made it very clear in her clarification,” Ahamad pointed out. He also added that while they accept the teachings of the Islamic religion, everybody has the right to have a personal opinion and as far as the religion is concerned they cannot comment on that. “But I support Sharmila’s stand. It is a social need in today’s context because of the exploitation of women – yet it is a contradiction. I consider myself a Muslim and I do not endorse it. But the reality of today’s situation propel us to find a solution,” Ahamad added.

He further said that within Islam, there are various solutions where the religious leadership can get involved and find a solution for this kind of situations. “This causes a wider discussion specially among the Muslim community. We need to look at these problems from a wide angle and a wider discussion has to take place with moderates and religious leaderships to find ways of addressing these kind of issues,” he added.

He also stated that he does not in anyway accept anybody issuing ‘an edict’ saying that she should be banished from Islam for highlighting a social reality. “But if she has not followed Islamic teaching. it is up to the religious leadership to enlighten her about the teachings. There is no way that Islam permits this kind of punishments against any woman. It is the responsibility of the Muslim community to find a mechanism to discuss these issues. But what is happening today is that with liberal social media, unfortunately anybody is able to say anything without taking responsibility,” he pointed out.

Mr. Ahamad reiterated that all sort of fundamentalists – not only Muslim but other religious fundamentalists – are using social media to promote extremism. He insisted that the numbers of people who support such views are small but 10 or 20 people can make it look like millions are supporting their views. “This is a work of small group of people with narrow objectives and we should call upon our religious leadership to intervene and ensure that no individual is allowed either a man or a woman to be persecuted in this manner,” he insisted.

Secretary General of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Hasan Ali added that the Secretariat for Muslims (SFM) issued a statement regarding Ms. Seyyid incident and he shares the same view. “It is not fair to vilify her based on a comment that she made on a social reality. She has the right to express her view. It will be decided by the God almighty whether it is good or bad,” he voiced his thoughts. He reiterated that nobody has the authority to pass a judgement or issue a sentence beyond the laws of the country and Muslims also abide by the laws of the county. When inquired if the SLMC should take measures to ensure the safety of Ms. Seyyid, he added that she has to be protected by the law of the country – and as Muslim politicians they could not choose sides.

 

http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2015/05/03/sharmila-seyyid-living-in-exile/

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