Founder of the Organization of Social Development, a community-based organization in Eravur, 30-year-old Seyyid, who is also a single mother to a son, used to closely work with minority women in Sri Lanka’s Eastern province for the last three years following the civil war.
She has also won awards from the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association for her two poetry collections, Siragu Mullatha Penn (2012), Ovva (2015) and her first novel, Ummath (2014).
But her life changed after an interview she gave to BBC Tamil on November 18, 2012 following the release of her collection of poems Siragu Mullatha Penn which translates to “The Women Who Grew Wings”. When asked about the security of women in different spheres, she candidly said that legalising sex work would provide certain protection to them.
Fundamentalist groups considered this statement an endorsement of sex work, which according to them was an occupation considered haram (forbidden) in Islam.
Although Seyyid offered to apologise, the fundamentalist groups demanded that she retract her statement – something she firmly refused to do.
Her stand sparked furore - an English academy she and her sister used to run was vandalised and she and her family were forced to flee the country. Seyyid’s parents are still living “through a nightmare having to relocate themselves several times due to continues harassment”.
What borders on travesty, is that religious fundamentalists pursued her across not just one, but two countries.
In March, Seyyid found herself staring at gruesome, photo-shopped pictures of her “raped” and “murdered” body in March accompanied by news reports announcing her death by fundamentalist Muslim groups after she refused to take down photos of herself without a purdah.
There are however some liberal Muslims and writers in India and back home in Sri Lanka who have come out in support of Seyyid.
In an exclusive interview with The News Minute Seyyid talked about leaving home, her BBC interview and freedom of expression. This interview, which was conducted over email, has been edited for length and brevity.
TNM: You’ve left your home country, but has it helped at all?
Seyyid: We breathe a sense of relief in terms of personal security. When I felt that the hate campaign was cascading into different dimensions, the feeling was that I am putting my entire family welfare into jeopardy. At this juncture, even the Muslim community did not stand up for me. Most people misquoted as me (sic) endorsing prostitution. I am glad that now, [the] world over, people respect my forthright views and recognize women’s concerns voiced by me. Even though fear for life made my exit, it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
TNM: You have been hounded for posting photographs on Facebook without a purdah. How strict or conservative is the Muslim community in Sri Lanka?
Seyyid: In my understanding from Al -Quran Soorah annoor, verse 31, there is no compulsion in Islam to wear a burqa. Unfortunately, [when] Islam [is] practiced in patriarchal society, some individuals or few group(s) of people create this as an issue… A few Islamic groups play a role to bring all the Muslims around the world under one identity. Thus, forcing to wear the abaya and face cover. This is even carried out by Arabic collages in Sri Lanka. Islam is not based on dress code or in any sort of identity. Islam is based on Iman. No one can force anyone.
TNM: Was it just the BBC interview and your views on prostitution that has started this three year outrage?
Seyyid: I don’t think so. It was a reason. Patriarchal society does not allow women to be independent. My views earned the wrath of society as they sent signals about women’s freedom. This brought me under the microscope. They started to watch me. My independence, my freedom, my speech, my writing, my dress and my way of life. Everything was not to their liking. So, they wanted me off…
TNM: What is your view on prostitution and why do you think legalisation will help?
Seyyid: I commented based on my research on ground realities of women in war-affected areas. I travelled across many villages’ in Northern and Eastern provinces. I found women (and even underage chidren) who are forced into prostitution by circumstances. Legalisation of sex work will find a solution from the forced human trafficking and help women to seek support against unscrupulous elements. It will reduce the number of crimes and cruelty against women. It will also prevent women being lured into prostitution due to circumstances. One can compare countries that have legalized prostitution, and observe the impact it had had on women’s welfare, crime rate and the impact it has on the society. Hence, I was of the view that even Sri Lanka being a fully matured capitalistic nation should not have an issue over it.
TNM: Your book Ummath discusses the Talibanisation of the Muslim community in east Sri Lanka. Could you tell us a little about the current scenario?
Seyyid: Ummath does not discuss Talibanism at all. It is a misconception by people, who distort the novel to bring blemish on the author. Ummath highlights the predicament of women, from ethnic and religious minorities, who lived through Sri Lanka’s civil war. I used the word Talibanism, to use an example which could be understood easily. Some religious extremist organisations are carrying out doctrines that articulate curtailment of religious freedom. Muslim sects who believe that the entire community should follow their interpretation of Islam are emerging. Intimidating tactics are applied to the people who share a different view. It has some resemblance to what Taliban does.
TNM: Around the world there have been instances of restraint on freedom of expression. Where do you think we are going wrong and what do you think should be done?
Seyyid: Society and all elements that have influence over it should strive hard to instill values that recognize an individual’s independence. Freedom of expression needs to be recognised.Discrimination based on gender, religion, caste, creed etc needs to be eliminated from society. Intellectuals, politicians, media, religious dignitaries, civil society, writers and artists should contribute towards building such a society.