‘For years, men have told us how to think’ – Soraya Deen | Sunday Observer

‘For years, men have told us how to think’ – Soraya Deen

26 August, 2018
Pic: Thilak Perera
Pic: Thilak Perera

Strong willed, vivacious. That’s what she is. Truth and kindness seem to be her foundation. Bold when it comes to opinion, she doesn’t mince her words in expressing the truth. She proudly displays a tattoo on her left wrist – the letter ‘Sri’ in Sinhalese. “See, I am a Sri Lankan and I’m proud to be one,” says she, the international peace activist.

Though proud to be a Sri Lankan she is saddened by the state of peace and harmony in the country. All what reconciliation and living in harmony needs is people being “a little kind and considerate, a little respectful, towards one another,” she says. However, this is lacking in the country. Taking personal responsibility, speaking kindly, the willingness and ability to see the best in others and in everything – in other words, positivity is lacking in Sri Lanka, she comments. “That is critical, because even a broken clock gives the right time twice a day doesn’t it?” she questions.

Identity, whether it is ethnic, religious or gender, is “unique, powerful and beautiful.” Living in USA, she gets to be “myself, to celebrate my culture and then also embrace American culture. That’s a rare opportunity.” The Sunday Observer met Soraya Deen, international peace activist, co-founder of Peace Moms and founder Muslim Women Speaker’s Movement, recently.

Here are some excerpts of our conversation with her.

What is your definition of reconciliation?

I think reconciliation is to bring two divergent entities together definitely with the idea of healing. So, in the Sri Lankan context, it is to bring the communities together to a process of reconciliation and not just to come together but to actively commit to healing.

How did you get involved in peace and reconciliation work?

As a lawyer I realised we were always confronting the person, never the problem. It is always who is right and not what is right. There we lacked a spiritual basis for what we were doing. Everything was about how can I fix you and how can I get you. And then slowly I realised it is not so. My mom is a Buddhist and my father is a Muslim so Buddhist philosophy has influenced me a lot. My continuous commitment to learn to be in harmony with one another, compassionate to be a better person pushed me to this field of work.

How satisfied are you with the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka?

I think the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka has stagnated. Civil society is participating. But, they are not getting sufficient empowerment and backing from the institutions and the Government. Great work is happening but we need to highlight this work continuously. When you wake up in the morning you need to hear and see a positive message about peace and reconciliation. That is so lacking in Sri Lanka, everything is about what is wrong - how are we going to fix it. So, we need positive messages, positive stories, because that gives us fuel to move forward.

I feel more needs to be done genuinely. Genuineness is to call a spade a spade, to call what is wrong, wrong, to really speak truth to power. It is a really dangerous place to be. You can get beaten up or you can be shut down, written off. Yes, but we need that level of dialogue.

In your opinion, what lessons from other countries would help us?

The South African model is powerful. There was no impunity. Everybody faced each other and apologised. Here, we need to be more open and accountable. It is true that everything happened in a different setting where there was war and lines were blurred. But let’s say there was an officer who killed somebody. Short of killing or sending him to prison, he can really help that family. Do something that takes away the trauma that was caused.

I like the South African model where people stood, looked at the victim and the offender, looked them in the eye and said, ‘I’m so sorry’. Again, even as I talk, I don’t want to seem as if I can over simplify all this. They’ve lost their loved ones in tragic circumstances and there is grief. These people have gone through not only just grief but also trauma, and that needs to be kept in mind.

Where have we gone wrong? Why does the reconciliation process seem stagnated?

I think it is important for us to say, ‘I’m sorry I made a mistake’. I always say, forgive out of self interest. When you forgive you feel relieved, right? Then be authentic, we are all just passing through. Instead, we’re all having a mask and playing a game. ‘I know everything. I’m never wrong and don’t try to teach me’. So, you refuse to forgive. I feel there’s a spiritual component that is lacking in our education system.

“That is to really understand the humanity in us. We are like a salad bowl – we are not a soup.

How can we contribute to the reconciliation process as civil society groups and individuals?

First, we have to continue what we are doing. Second, we have to have counter narratives. When there is so much that is promoting blind misunderstanding we should be able to counter that. .

I feel all communities have to take stock of what is wrong within that community. It is not for me to come and say, “look here Buddhists, you’re not doing this and that” and it is not for them to say that to the Muslims or the Christians. That’s where friction begins.

So, why don’t I take a deeper look at my own community? These are the things we need to correct. I always say when we admit our weaknesses people can’t use it against us. We need to take a personal inventory and correct ourselves before we point a finger at another.

What role could religion play?

I believe, peace among religions is a precondition for world peace. Today, this problem is getting magnified. There is exclusivity and superiority. All religionists are talking about, ‘my religion is better than your religion’. Religion is also a useful tool for us to heal. But of course, Napoleon once said, it is a powerful tool for people who are governing. And it is a powerful tool because ordinary people like us will squabble about our religion, whose is better.

What’s your mission in Sri Lanka?

My mission in Sri Lanka is twofold. One, I really want to encourage Muslim women to take part in public leadership roles. I want them to move beyond their theology, not to bring theology to the public square. It’s not helping us. Theology is a personal journey.

The second goal is to teach religious communities to deconstruct some of their received theology. Because all theology is contextual – a message that was delivered 1,500 years ago cannot be as relevant today. We have evolved.

So, we can’t be static. So how to see the contextuality? For instance, in my community there is polygamy. Men can marry four times. I say that’s not relevant today. It was, at that time. So how can we move beyond? I can get into a lot of controversy. I can get a lot of push back from within my community for my stance.

Give us some highlights on your experience with women in Sri Lanka.

They are powerful women with great commitment. There was a woman who was carrying her infant child when she attended the workshop. When we asked her what she wanted to do, she said “I want to sit on the Board of the Muslim mosque”. Yes. Powerful.

There was a woman who participated in the elections. She was ridiculed also by the community in the mosque, saying, that is not the place for women. She went back and she went to school with her son. This is a Muslim woman from Sri Lanka.

Mohamad Ali said, ‘Service is rent we pay for living’. So, what I feel is, we all need a spark. Need somebody to ignite that.

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, is a topic of contention, today. As a Muslim woman activist, what do you have to say?

I think in the Muslim community a grave injustice has happened for years. Going back to Saudi influence, they exported an extreme kind of Wahabi, the tentacles of which spread even to us in Sri Lanka. That is also based on economic necessity. They come, build their mosques, and instal their imams. So, there is, I might even say a queer view of how this is happening. This is perpetuating injustice towards women.

Men with beards - I say without any fear – have for years told us how to think and what to think and we have not questioned these practices. It is time for us to question every answer. Yes, we have to.

“ So, men should stop. Actually this is a human rights issue. I mean it is not theology, it is human rights. How can men decide at what age a girl needs to marry? It is like taking us back 1,400 years.

And women hold half the globe. We have to be equal partners. And the sad thing is in these moments when we fight so deep we divide ourselves. I mean just as much as I need to make my voice heard, it will be nice to have a Muslim man stand with me and say – Yes this woman is speaking sense. Usually, we never get that. So there’s always a division. It then becomes who is right, not what is right. We lose the objective of the issue of our discussion.

What needs to be done as Sri Lankans?

It is not only a Muslim problem, it is broader. Article 16 of the Constitution says, all personal laws will prevail, not withstanding what’s in the Constitution.

Therefore all these communities, the Tamils, the Kandyan Sinhalese and the Muslims, are struggling with these. I think it is time to see women from all faith communities coming together and taking one stand.

Men come together, they sit together in boardrooms and they determine whether a woman should take a pill or at what age she can marry. No voices of women are heard. Women’s issues are not addressed by women, that’s the problem. We need women in politics. We can solve this problem as we move along.