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A woman walks in the rain in Sri Lanka. Sharmila Seyyid, a Sri Lankan poet who bravely speaks out on women's rights, hopes for a brighter future. planetlight under a Creative Commons Licence
A woman walks in the rain in Sri Lanka. Sharmila Seyyid, a Sri Lankan poet who bravely speaks out on women's rights, hopes for a brighter future. planetlight under a Creative Commons Licence

Hounded and harassed – but Sharmila Seyyid isn’t giving up

[By Mari Marcel Thekaekara | New Internationalist]

My morning paper brought me news which was nauseating and alarming, yet which filled me with hope, all at the same time. A gutsy Sri Lankan writer has been hounded, harassed and threatened for daring to question the chauvinistic male hierarchy which forces her and other women to cover up, or else. Yes, Sharmila Seyyid, is a Muslim woman – a Muslim poet to boot. And she received death threats when her poetry and writing went public, after a BBC interview in November 2012.

Her crime? She dared to defend women’s rights and talk about the freedom that was, in her opinion, the birth right of every woman.

Of course, she was asking for trouble. Millions of powerful men think she has no right to have an opinion, leave alone voice one. When Sharmila’s first collection of poems, Siragu Mulaitha Penn (The women who grew wings) was released in Sri Lanka, the poem that provoked the ire of the rabid religious was one about sex workers.

Apparently, Sharmila voiced an unthinkable opinion by publicly declaring that legalizing sex work would help protect sex workers. All hell broke loose. She was accused of being a heretic and disobeying the tenets of Islam. She and her sister received death threats. Their English academy was attacked and a mob attempted to burn it down. She apologized for hurting people’s sentiments unwittingly, but refused to retract her words. Refused to kowtow to the clerics’ diktat.

Sharmila’s tremendous courage can be gleaned from her work. She writes:

‘Questions about covering a woman’s face… are crying out for clarity and resolution. It is not just a question of covering a woman’s face, (but) her whole body and the clothes and accessories that embellish it are shrouded over by force. Islamic society continues to not only force its womenfolk to stay in an environment that makes no concession to contemporary realities and the liberalizing trends of the times but is in fact regressing into increasing rigidity. The stand taken by Islamic fundamentalists on issues such as women’s rights is often most condemnable and quite contrary to common sense and reason. The fundamentalists, appropriating for themselves the role of guardians of the society, have set up their own illegal panchayats, making it impossible to give reality to the dignity and the rights of women that the holy book, the Qur’an, has taught us…. The practice of wearing a head-dress and facial veil is an Arab custom and was brought to other countries as part of commercial ventures. Our dominating men have been successful in convincing women that these commercial products are a part of Islamic culture and tradition. Islamic women have, therefore, started wearing them as symbols of their identity and also because they fear that refusing to do so would stigmatize them as unchaste, anti-Islamic and even brand them as prostitutes!’

The hate campaign against Sharmila grows.

In mid-March, a lewd conversation between two Tamil police officers was posted with Sharmila’s picture attached to it. The online attacks continue. Sharmila was ordered to remove all her photographs from Facebook within 24 hours. She ignored the warning. So the hate group showed a graphic image of her ‘rape’ and ‘killing’, boasting that ‘fundamentalist Muslims’ ‘killed’ Sharmila Seyyid online.

A seemingly real news report of the event, accompanied by a gory Photoshopped picture of Sharmila’s body, went viral. Its impact was so graphic that her family and friends rushed to her home in shock and sorrow, according to The Hindu.

Horrid as this entire episode is, I think Sharmila’s courage, strength and tenacity will inspire women everywhere to fight oppression. She faces real death threats, yet refuses to be cowed. We salute her. I believe that women like her – ordinary gutsy women – will change the world for the better. And more women will unite to fight for their freedom, and the freedom of their daughters and granddaughters. What a woman.

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