Monday, April 27, 2015

Protect Sri Lankan Journalist Sharmila Seyyid, Supporter of Sex Workers’ Rights // Hasan Suroor: Hounded by mullahs: A Muslim woman writer forced to leave home

NB - Why it is so villainous for someone to question 'Islamic tenets'? Why should not anyone, Muslim or not, criticise any religious tenets whatsoever? Once upon a time the Church insisted that the sun went around the earth. Galileo was threatened with torture and confined to house arrest for suggesting that the truth was the other way around. It's all very well to say this or that is an Islamic tenet. Its another thing altogether to threaten someone with violence because he or she disagrees with xyz religious tenet. The mentality of the Inquisition must be set aside, or else Muslim society will end up crushing its most outstanding and humane members, simply because they feel it's time to move on - DS

Muslim Civil Society activists have urged the Sri Lankan authorities to bring to book those who have been harassing and intimidating journalist and social worker Sharmila Seyyid for her opinion on rights of the sex workers. Giving an interview to the BBC Tamil radio she said that sex workers may be better protected if prostitution was legalized.

“This drew a significant backlash from a section of the Muslim community in the area and elsewhere prompting her to issue a clarification, in which she emphasized that she was ‘…only highlighting a social reality and did not intend to defy Islamic tenets’. She also expressed ‘regret if she had unwittingly hurt anyone’s sentiments’.” activists say.

We publish below the statement in full;

Statement on the continued harassment of Ms. Sharmila Seyyid and her family
We, the undersigned would like to express our extreme distress and dismay at the incidents of harassment against Ms. Sharmila Seyyid and her family through a variety of means including social media.

In November 2012, the Tamil Radio Service of the BBC interviewed Ms. Sharmila Seyyid, a journalist and social worker from the Eastern Province. In response to a question from the BBC reporter, Ms. Seyyid had voiced the opinion that sex workers may be better protected if prostitution was legalized. This drew a significant backlash from a section of the Muslim community in the area and elsewhere prompting her to issue a clarification, in which she emphasized that she was “…only highlighting a social reality and did not intend to defy Islamic tenets”. She also expressed “regret if she had unwittingly hurt anyone’s sentiments”.

The harassment and intimidation that began in the aftermath of the 2012 interview has resulted in her having to leave the country, and continues to this day, impacting other family members as well. An article reproduced in both the Sunday Observer and the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka on the 19th of April 2015 recorded several more recent truly horrifying actions against her on the internet and also recorded renewed calls by some to condemn her for insulting and offending Islamic teachings.

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. This event highlights the critical need within the Muslim community, and also in the country at large, for developing processes to respond to critical issues, not through vilification, harassment or violence but through a process of dialogue that is in keeping with the law and norms of a democratic society and respectful of different faiths and ethics.

We urge the authorities to ensure that a thorough and fair investigation is conducted with regard to the complaints received by the aggrieved parties and hold those responsible for misconduct accountable. We also request that community religious leaders such as the Jamiathul Ulema take steps to halt the targeting of fellow Muslims based on spurious religious justifications. We also call upon all community leaders and civil society actors of the Muslim community to continue to play an active role in upholding the rights of every citizen.


  1. Sharm Aboosally
  2. Azra Abdul Cader
  3. Fathima Razik Cader
  4. Zahabia Adamaly
  5. Hilmy Ahamed
  6. Silma Ahamed
  7. Ferial Ashraff
  8. Abdul Halik Azeez
  9. Fathima Hasanah Cegu Isadeen -Lawyer
  10. Ameer Faaiz
  11. M.B.M.Fairooz- Editor, Vidivelli.
  12. Mushtaq Fuad
  13. Anberiya Hanifa
  14. Dr. Farzana Haniffa
  15. Faiza Haniffa
  16. Prof. Shahul. H. Hasbullah
  17. Ali Hassan
  18. Shafinaz Hassendeen
  19. Zeenath Hidaya
  20. M.H. Mohamed Hisham
  21. Ameena Hussein
  22. Hafsa Husain
  23. Hana Ibrahim
  24. Zainab Ibrahim
  25. Prof. Qadri Ismail
  26. M.C.M. Iqbal
  27. Ameen Izzadeen, Deputy Editor, Sunday Times.
  28. Nisreen Jafferjee
  29. Riyaz Jafferjee
  30. Zaffar Jeevunjee
  31. Hamthun Jumana – Mullaitheevu Women Rehabilitation and Development Federation
  32. M.S.L. Madani
  33. Mohamad Mahuruf
  34. Jensila Majeed – Women’s Action Network
  35. Juwairiya Mohideen – Muslim Women Development Trust
  36. Mr. M.L. Buhary Mohamed – Eastern Social Development Foundation
  37. Zamruth Jahan Mufazlin – Lawyer
  38. Mohamed S.R. Nisthar
  39. Feroze Nihar
  40. Prof. M. A. Nuhman
  41. Nuzreth Rasheed
  42. M. M. Rahman
  43. Rajabdeen Rashika – MWRDF
  44. Prof. Louiqa Raschid
  45. Dr. Romola Rasool
  46. A.S. Mohamed Rayees
  47. Amjad Saleem.
  48. Shreen Saroor – Mannar Women’s Development Federation
49. Ermiza Tegal
50. Minna Thahir
51. S.M.M. Yaseen
52. Hanif Yusoof
53. Hela Mohammed Zakariya – Women’s Action Network 54. Faizun Zackariya – Citizens’ Voice for Justice and Peace. 55. A.J.M. Zaneer
56. Y.L.M. Zawahir
57. Dr. L. M. Zubair – University of Peradeniya

Hasan Suroor: Hounded by mullahs: A Muslim woman writer forced to leave home, why is the community silent?
As a poet, Sharmila Seyyid is used to dealing in imagination, but even she couldn’t have imagined that an innocuous remark in an innocuous BBC interview would trigger a chain of events that would turn her world upside down--ultimately forcing her to go into hiding in a place far away from her home. A Muslim woman journalist, writer and activist, Seyyid is being hounded by fundamentalist groups –not in one but two countries--because of her outspoken criticism of certain “Islamic” practices such as the purdah system, and her warnings against creeping “Talibanisation” of the Muslim community.

A Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan and a single mother with a small child, she finds herself stuck in a safe house in Chennai after being forced to flee her home in Batticaloa, eastern Sri Lanka. This followed a systematic and vicious campaign of intimidation, including death threats and threats to kidnap her young sister with whom she ran an English language school. The school was attacked, and an attempt was made to burn it down.

But if Seyyid thought that moving to India would buy her peace, she had not reckoned with the long reach of her tormentors. For, far from dying down, the hate campaign against her has grown in recent weeks with Indian Muslim fanatics taking over where their Sri Lankan comrades left off. Yet, surprisingly, Seyyid’s nightmare has attracted little media attention outside Tamil-speaking circles. Among the national English language newspapers, only The Hindu took note of it courtesy an op-ed by Kannan Sundaram, editor of Kalachuvadu, a Tamil monthly.

Meanwhile, vigilantism has gone online with her critics taking their dirty tricks to social media. A few weeks ago, they warned her to remove all of her photographs without purdah from Facebook within 24 hours. When she refused, an audio of a lewd conversation between a high-ranking Tamil Nadu police officer and a female subordinate was posted with a photo of Seyyid tagged to it suggesting that the woman the officer was talking to was her. It was widely shared on the net, and though she was finally able to get it off the web the damage had been done.

Emboldened by their “success’’, the bullies attempted another –even more obscene—stunt. This time, they posted what sounded like a real news item of a woman being “raped’’ and “murdered’’ attached to a photoshopped picture of Seyyid’s body. It went viral, and such was its impact that her family and friends thought it was true and landed up at her home. Her father Seyyid Ahmed has made a formal complaint to the police alleging a concerted attempt to incite hatred against his daughter. He says his family is living a nightmare; and fears for their safety.

Now back to the BBC interview which triggered Seyyid’s nightmare. It happened in 2012 when speaking to the BBC’s Tamil Service she backed legalising sex work arguing that it would help protect sex-workers. It was not part of any agenda. She was simply answering a specific question about her debut collection of poems Siragu Mulaitha Penn (The women who grew wings) in which one poem was about sex workers. Fundamentalist groups, who already had her in their sights because of her progressive (allegedly “anti-Islamic’’) views, seized on her remarks to launch an all-out attack accusing her of “endorsing’’ prostitution, considered haram in Islam.

“The threatening calls began soon after. By the next morning, Ms. Seyyid had received hundreds of missed calls on her mobile phone. There were news reports that condemned her for supporting sex work and the social media joined in,’’ according to The Hindu article. Threats and intimidation continued even after she apologised for unwittingly hurting anyone’s sentiments. But she refused to retract her statement under duress. This provoked the mullahs to step up their attacks—finally forcing her to seek refuge in India, only to discover that you can run away from your country but you can’t run away from the growing menace of religious fundamentalism.

Sayyid has been praised for standing up to the bullies. “Horrid as this entire episode is, I think, Sharmila’s courage, strength and tenacity will inspire women everywhere to fight oppression,’’ human rights activist Mari Marcel Thekaekara wrote on her blog. Seyyid’s case comes on the heels of that of Mumbai-based Shirin Dalvi, then editor of an Urdu daily, Avadhnama. She was targeted in a similar fashion for “hurting” Muslim sentiments. Her “crime” was that while writing about the murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists , she reproduced the magazine’s cover carrying a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad. And though she was quick to publish an unconditional front page apology, it did not satisfy Islam’s self-appointed custodians who continued their relentless smear campaign.

On their complaint, she was arrested, and multiple cases were registered against her for “outraging religious feelings … with malicious intent.” Things reached a point where she felt so insecure that she took to wearing burqa to escape attention and to move out her family home. Unfortunately, few liberal Muslims stood up for her. In fact, a senior Urdu newspaper editor admitted that elements of the Urdu Patrakar Sangh, which represents Urdu journalists and of which she was a member, were party to the cases filed against Dalvi.

Understandably, Muslims resent being called upon to condemn every act of Muslim extremism by arguing why the entire community should be held accountable for a few rotten apples. But here was a Muslim woman being harassed by their own lunatic fringe. In Seyyid’s case, though, some liberal Tamil Muslims have joined an online protest but that’s not enough. Contrast this with the strong liberal Hindu response in the Perumal Murugan case. They rushed to support the Tamil writer when he was attacked by Hindutva groups objecting to certain portions in one of his best-known books.
unchallenged, this “lunatic fringe’’ can also turn against us one day.

See also
"As (Allama) Iqbal placed the body of Ilm Din into the grave, he tearfully declared: "This uneducated young man has surpassed us, the educated ones." 
Mahmoud Mohammed Taha was a Sudanese religious thinker and leader executed for apostasy at the age of 76 by the regime of Gaafar Nimeiry. (See his Court statement)