Hounded By Mullahs, a Muslim Woman Writer, Sharmila Seyyid, Is Forced To Flee Sri Lanka, but While You Can Run Away From Your Country, You Cannot Run Away From Fanatics
Also Read Below:
First Post.com, Kannan Sundaram and Indian Express Report
Apr 26, 2015
Courtesy: Facebook, Sharmila Seyyid's profile.
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.
Courtesy: Facebook, Sharmila Sheyyid's profile. Courtesy: Facebook, Sharmila Seyyid's profile.
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 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 (Chronicle of a Death Online, 7 April) 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.
What if Dalvi and Sayyid had been victims of Hindu fanatics? I’m sure Muslims would have reacted with outrage. And rightly so. But such selective outrage not only weakens the broader fight against religious fanaticism but gives a handle to the Hindu Right to exploit such cases for their own political ends.
It is not about defending individuals but about standing up for civilised behaviour when it is under threat irrespective of the source of the threat. For, if allowed to go unchallenged, this “lunatic fringe’’ can also turn against us one day.
Chronicle of a Death Online
By Kannan Sundaram
April 17, 2015
First exiled from her country, Sri Lankan writer Sharmila Seyyid, has now been ‘raped’ and ‘killed’ online.
Fundamentalism knows no boundaries. In India, it was Perumal Murugan who announced the death of the writer in him. In Sri Lanka, writer Sharmila Seyyid was ‘raped’ and ‘murdered’ online on March 28, marking a new low in the history of intolerance. If casteist and Hindutva forces drove the writer in Mr. Murugan to death, it was fundamentalist Muslim groups who ‘killed’ Ms. Seyyid online. A seemingly real news report of the event, accompanied by a gory photoshopped picture of Ms. Seyyid’s body, went viral. Its impact was so real that her family and friends rushed to her home in shock and sorrow.
Her father Seyyid Ahmed wrote in his complaint in Eravur police station in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka that there has been a concerted effort to incite hatred in the Muslim community against his daughter. Threats of kidnapping were also sent to Ms. Seyyid’s younger sister. It has become hard for the family to live in the community amidst all the rumours and suspicion, Mr. Ahmed said. He greatly fears for the lives of his daughters and their children.
Ms. Seyyid, a single mother, journalist, activist and writer, was barely 30 when she was in the eye of the controversy that forced her into self-exile from eastern Sri Lanka. She has a graduate degree in journalism, and is the founder-president of the Organisation for Social Development, established in 2009, a community-based organisation in Eravur. On November 18, 2012, she was interviewed on BBC TamilOsai after her first collection of poems Siragu Mulaitha Penn (The women who grew wings) was released in Sri Lanka. Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, speaking at the event, highlighted a few of her poems, one of which one was about sex workers.
In response to a question from the BBC reporter, Ms. Seyyid said that legalising sex work would help protect sex workers. This was interpreted as 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.
Ms. Seyyid issued a clarification explaining that she was only highlighting a social reality and did not intend to defy Islamic tenets. She expressed regret for unwittingly hurting people’s sentiments. But when clergy compelled her to retract the statement, she refused. An English academy she ran along with her sister was damaged in an attack and an attempt was made to burn it down. She fled Sri Lanka soon after, but the online world continued to watch her every move and hound her. She has been warned repeatedly for posting photographs on Facebook of herself without a Purdah. When she posted a photo album of selfies with her son, she was warned for posing playfully like a ‘mendicant in penance’.
Ms. Seyyid has published two poetry collections so far. Her novel Ummath not only exposes the injustices meted out by Tamil nationalists to Tamil-speaking Muslims in Sri Lanka, but also critiques the Talibanisation of the Muslim community in eastern Sri Lanka. Both her poetry collections and her novel have received awards from the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association.
Some sections from her novel that question the practice of Purdah have been widely circulated online. Ms. Seyyid 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 liberalising 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 Koran, 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 stigmatise them as unchaste, anti-Islamic and even brand them as prostitutes!”
Threats and Warnings
In mid-March, an audio recording made news and was widely shared and heard online. It was of a high-ranking Tamil Nadu police officer in a lustful telephonic conversation with a woman subordinate. But the photograph that accompanied it in online reports was Ms. Seyyid’s. It is not clear if this was deliberate or merely an act of negligence. Shocked, but never one to take anything lying down, she condemned it on Facebook and, with several friends, strongly protested against the websites and social media pages that published her photograph. She succeeded in temporarily taking it off the web.
It was at this point that some Muslim fundamentalist groups from Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and West Asia began an organised attack on Ms. Seyyid. Her photograph is now being deliberately circulated along with the audio recording; and her name defamatorily linked with the scandal. But before this the groups sent her a warning: she was to remove all of her photographs without purdah from Facebook within 24 hours. The attacks began when the warning went unheeded and ended with her ‘rape’ and ‘killing’.
Liberal Muslims are protesting loudly online. Women writers and liberal Muslim writers joined to organise a protest meeting. Under the umbrella ‘Pen Veli’, a discussion forum was launched in Chennai on March 5, to protest the continuing attacks on women by Islamic fundamentalists. The speakers categorically condemned the attempts to defame women and Islam by fundamentalist groups. The acts of such groups were condemned as anti-Islam.
Ms. Seyyid continues to be in partial hiding, fearful of her child’s safety but still bold and confident. Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department has now registered charges of cyber crime against unknown persons. Of course, the culpable persons are not confined to Sri Lanka but are spread out across India and West Asia.
In Kerala, fundamentalists of all kinds joined hands to protest the ‘Kiss of Love’ movement. In the global Tamil sphere, they appear to be acting in concert to threaten the free expression of writers and artists.
There is no clash of fundamentalists in India, but a symphony that is now reaching a crescendo, against freedom of expression and existence, which is reaching across borders.
(Kannan Sundaram is editor of Kalachuvadu, a Tamil monthly, and is the publisher of Perumal Murugan’s Mathorubhagan. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Lankan Muslim Intelligentsia Back Woman Writer under Extremist Threat
27 April, 2015
COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan Muslim intelligentsia on Sunday urged the authorities to bring to book extremists who have been harassing and intimidating Sharmila Seyyid for her writings and remarks against the Talibanisation of Sri Lankan Muslim society.
Seeking a “thorough and fair” investigation into the complaints made on behalf of Sharmila, the 57 signatories to the appeal have urged the authorities to hold those responsible for all the misconduct accountable.
They also requested community religious leaders like the Jamaith ul Ulema to take steps to “halt the targeting of fellow Muslims based on spurious religious justifications.”
The signatories said that there is a “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 democratic society.”
A single mother, young Sharmila from Eravur in the Eastern Province, is a poet, novelist, journalist and social worker. She has been writing against the institution of purdah and the subjugation of women in Lankan Islamic society. Through her Organization of Social Development, she had taken up the cause of Muslim women in an increasingly restrictive Lankan Muslim society. She had won accolades for her writings in Tamil Nadu as well as Lanka.
What triggered the tirade against her was an interview given to BBC’s Tamil Osai in 2012 in which she said that the sufferings of prostitutes could be mitigated if prostitution was legalized. Arsonists attacked the educational institution she was running, and the social media was liberally used to tarnish her reputation. According to the media, this included an audio of a “lustful” conversation she had allegedly had with a top cop in Tamil Nadu and a picture of her battered “dead body” suggesting that death was in store for her.