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Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka - the flipside

Islamic fundamentalism has progressive aspects too, writes PK Balachandran.

world Updated: Apr 24, 2007 11:28 IST

Islamic fundamentalism in Kattankudy in the Eastern Sri Lankan district of Batticaloa, is multifaceted.

It has both regressive and progressive aspects, though to the naked eye of the fleeting visitor, only the former is visible.

Fundamentalism has united previously disparate entities while creating new barriers. It has infused intolerance of some types, but at the same time, liberated sections of society from the thraldom of traditional practices and ideas described as "outdated", "un-Islamic" or "superstitious".

Strange though it may seem to outsiders fed on Afghanistan's medieval Talibani fundamentalism, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Kattankudy has given a boost to women's education and empowerment and narrowed the man-woman gap.

Opportunities in West Asia for employment and the impoverishment of the Tamils due to militancy and war from the 1980s onwards, had helped advance the Muslims' economic development vis-à-vis the rest of the society.

And with prosperity came a new set of values. Muslim women began to leave their traditional place in the home to go to West Asia for work, and to schools and universities locally.

The thing to be noted here is that this progressive process coincided with the radical Islamisation of Kattankudy.

Islamisation did not interfere with progressive changes. On the contrary, it was a major factor encouraging them.

"Kattunkudy now has a good education system and the girls, especially, are doing well," said MBM Firdous, General Secretary of the Centre for Development and Rebuilding.

However, girls going for classes or for work in offices have to observe certain strict diktats. Drawing on her experience in Colombo, social researcher Anberiya Haniffa said that Muslim girls from conservative families who wanted to go for higher education in co-educational institutions were made to give two undertakings: one, they would wear the hijab and abaya; and two, they would not mix with non-Muslim male students!

Kattankudy's Ulema were accommodating. They said that the face veil was required only when the woman was in a public place.

In the office, they could remove it. Women could take up any job so long as it did not require that a single woman be alone with men. However, male-female social mixing and holding hands outside the home were taboo, said SLM.Nashwar and MIM Naufer of the radical Dar-ul-Asad.

Islamisation has helped bridge the traditional man-woman divide in crucial ways." Previously, men never did any household work, but now, they do. My husband scrapes coconuts in the kitchen. Fathers dress up kids going to school," said Aneesa Firthous, President of the Islamic Womens' Association for Research and Empowerment.

Dar-ul-Asad is trying to liberate people from social evils. "We are campaigning against the use of liquor and drugs, and the evil dowry system," said Nashwal. Dowry has been one of the major traditional evils afflicting Kattankudy society.

The fostering of close familial control and support has prevented suicide. "Kattankudy has no suicides!" Naufer announced triumphantly.

Asked if women were not troubled by the loss of colour and variety, with everyone hidden under an all-embracing black robe, Aneesa said that not all abayas were dowdy, and that saris had not been banished.

"Saris and jewellery are worn during weddings on the Womens' Day, and at functions at which only women are present," she said.

And the hijab and abaya have their practical use. "The abaya is easy to wear and very convenient for working women who have to commute by bus," Aneesa said.

Chipping in, 29 year old Fowmiya said: "The hijab protects a woman from men on the street who try to pick up a conversation just for the heck of it!"