Discrimination of women begins sometimes not within the family, but by the society at large, and for my generation of Sri Lankan Muslim Women it began in our school system. Most of us attended schools that were considered to be secular, yet there were hidden layers of majority-minority found even within these secular schools.
Racial overtures and remarks towards any minority community were considered pretty normal in our society. I can recall one specific teacher who would openly discourage us girls by outwardly remarking “Why do Muslim girls need to study? You get married after ordinary Levels anyway.” Outwardly we pretend to ignore statements like these, and give the impression it never offended us. But inside it did, and maybe in a way it drove us to want to educate our children in order to change this perception.
I would love to dedicate this article to Zahara, one of my classmates, who was so seemingly furious with these teacher’s remarks that she went on to become a teacher herself. Personally, being born to non-Muslim parents and raised by my Muslim parents, I often found myself at a very odd side of the fence because of my name. It was almost like whether to jump or not to jump, as I wondered if it was directed towards me or not. Yet as a Muslim it certainly did affect me.
One might question at this point why the teacher made this remark, and also why we Muslim women became the discriminated bunch of society? Perhaps it may have been the lack of understanding of our own religion, or the contribution made by early Muslims and never raising our own voice.
Kumari Jayewardene, a Sri Lankan scholar, writes in her book “Nobody to Somebody” that the Muslim Community, unlike the others, did not lay much emphasis on education for either its males or females. She thus claimed that Muslims lagged behind others in education and access to profession.
The first ever-educational reforms in the community began in 1880 with the influence of the Aligarh movement in India. The birth of education in the community was fuelled after the arrival in Sri Lanka of the exiled Egyptian leader Orabi Pasha. Zahira College was opened for the boys, and with much opposition from the community, Muslim Ladies College was opened for the girls.
Despite these schools, and many more sprouting over the years, no major reforms or achievements by females in Sri Lanka can be attributed as noteworthy. If this is due to the willful neglect of society, then it is paramount to revisit history and gain an understanding of how women have been important pillars in society in the past.
An article I read on Huffington Post highlights 10 Muslim women that every person should know. A couple of the most distinguished members of the list included Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, who was an advocate of the rights of Muslim women during the time of Prophet, and Fathima al-Fihri from Morocco, who was the founder of the oldest degree awarding university.
If I have to add to this list, it would be the early calligraphers and poets who perfected the art of the pen and produced manuscripts of excellent standard. They studied along with the men and were students of well-known early calligraphy masters. Another noteworthy inclusion would be Al-Shifa bint Abdullah, who knew how to read and write from a very early age and became the first female teacher in Islam.
Fatima Bint al Aqra was a famous student of calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab, and she along with other women contributed to the art of calligraphy. There were also prominent female calligraphers from the Ottoman empire, who were also among the earlier scholars, and names include Ibrat, Zahidah Salma Khanum, Sharifah Aishah Khanum, Silfinaz Khanum, Faridah Khanum, Kuzaydah Khanum Celebi, and Nukhah Khanum.
Unless you dive in to the world of calligraphy and Islamic arts, you would normally not hear of these names, and they seem to have been simply ignored by history. In the book “Women’s Roles in the Art of Arabic Calligraphy” author Salah al-Din al-Munajjid writes that it is believed that a spiritual and mystical bond exists between women and the letters of the alphabet. Back in those times, for a woman to be considered really beautiful, one of the qualifications was good penmanship, and it was also said that a lucky woman was one who combined the beauty of body and face with that of character and penmanship.
While Islam emphasises reading and writing for both men and women, and addresses the issues of both in the Quran, we can only wonder how one began to become isolated from the other. This is South Asia’s paradox: a willful neglect of women’s education. South Asian Muslim women have become amongst the most marginalized sub-communities within their own society.
It is possible that we may have been using a misguided jurisprudence, due to our lack of knowledge of the religious texts. But despite the society’s marginalization, it is refreshing to see how many Muslim women, even in our own families, have some great hidden talents.
These talented women create and design their own clothes, crafts, jewellery, and paintings, plus applying some of the most intricate henna designs you can imagine. Some of these women even write as a hobby. Something common amongst them all is that no matter how far you have reached in your education level, and no matter what background you come from, almost every single Muslim woman will learn the art of cooking, and many will master this skill and become culinary geniuses.
It was our latter generation that has fuelled this change in women’s education, not the generation of our parents and ancestors. So it is important that we continue to act as models for reform, and help to channel this energy in the right direction and ensure the reforms continue in the community.
By Shyamalee Mahibalan