"The workshop was held at Badiuddin Mahmud Girls College and was organised with the support of the former Prefects’ Guild of the school"
Nabeela Iqbal, founder of Sisterhood Initiative
Being a girl is tough and for Sri Lankan lasses; it’s tougher with the societal norms and cultural restrictions. Sri Lankan girls face many issues yet those are unvoiced and unheard in the patriarchal society. A space to speak up on these issues was limited. For a Sri Lankan Muslim girl, who faced many issues such as the gender discriminatory Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), cultural restrictions and practices, such spaces are almost non- existent. And that was what empowered Nabeela Iqbal to create ‘Sisterhood Initiative’- a group where girls of any faith can join, discuss, volunteer and campaign against issues they face.
Nabeela Iqbal, an undergraduate in Environmental Science at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and an Advocate Champion with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts had founded ‘Sisterhood Initiative’ after being to an event for Muslim youth which was focused on youth empowerment. “That event was a mixed event yet on the panel, there wasn’t a single female speaker.
This made me realise that women especially Muslim women hardly had a space to talk about their issues.” Iqbal then made an Instagram IGTV video about the issues facing Muslim girls. “Soon many Muslim and even non Muslim girls reached out to me and all of them wanted a space to talk about such issues and be able to do something about it and thus, Sisterhood Initiative was born,” she recalled.
“An initiative based on trust”
The inaugural meeting was held on January 2020 in Colombo. Iqbal notes that the unique characteristic of this meeting was that all the girls who had come had just signed up an online form which was shared on social media. Most of the girls had never met each other before.
“A bunch of strangers trusted an online form and turned up for the meeting, therefore I could say that a lot of trust was involved in starting up this initiative,” she said.
At the inaugural meeting, Ms. Hasanah Cegu Issadeen, a women’s rights activist and a member of the Muslim Personal Law Reform Group (MPLRAG) conducted a session regarding the MMDA reforms, Hafsa Mazahim, a volunteer conducted a session on volunteerism and Razni Razick, founder of CareStation too shared her volunteerism story about how she founded her organisation.
“After the success of this workshop and seeing our social media posts, girls from other areas wanted us to conduct workshops in their areas. Thus, we had one in Kandy in February 2020,” Iqbal stated. In Kandy, the workshop was held at Badiuddin Mahmud Girls College and was organised with the support of the former Prefects’ Guild of the school. In the Kandy workshop, through interactive activities the girls aired the issues they had, and one of the key issues that came to light was the pressure on early marriages. Iqbal noted that as the issues became more taboo, the girls were more eager to engage.
"Iqbal added that at workshops, they found out that some issues that most initially thought were faced only by Muslim women were also faced by non- Muslim women"
Angela Forman, a member stated “Being a non-Muslim at these workshops honestly taught me that there’s more to the problems that these girls face that we see on the surface. Not only do the girls who don’t wear the hijab have issues because society keeps prodding them about it, but even girls who wear the burkha or the nikab are assumed to be illiterate and not worthy to have a meaningful conversation with, whereas they’re probably much more educated.”
Forman is one of the non- Muslim members in the club and she thinks that it is important that Muslims and non-Muslims alike are concerned about the issues faced by Muslim women. “More non Muslims should start getting involved in these discussions too, because they are a part of it even though it’s in the most discreet way ever. The tax money of every Sri Lankan citizen, not just the Muslim community’s is used for the maintenance of quazi courts. So we all have a right to see that justice is being served in quazi courts and that there is no discrimination in the MMDA. Thus, as Sri Lankans we need to advocate for MMDA reforms because it is also Sri Lankans who are facing injustice,” she said.
Iqbal added that at workshops, they found out that some issues that most initially thought were faced only by Muslim women were also faced by non- Muslim women.
Iqbal shared that after the Kandy workshop, girls from Matale, Akurana and Sainthamaruthu wanted workshops done in those areas too. Sisterhood Initiative is planning on doing workshops around Sri Lanka but Iqbal stated that they lacked the funding to do so.
“We don’t charge any registration fee nor do we have any source of income. For the workshops, we’ve pooled in money so far but as we continue to expand into other areas- this is going to be a challenge,” informed Iqbal. She also added that other than funding, another challenge they faced was verifying the identity of their members. “Like I said before this is an initiative based on trust, and sometimes just because the form is online it could be a guy pretending to be a girl- so we also face that challenge,” Iqbal said, adding that they are planning to also conduct a workshop for men as she felt that men too need to be aware of the issues women face and be a part of the solution.
“At Sisterhood Initiative, I just want to give all girls a space to speak out and we want to see what we can all do about it, collectively as sisters,” concluded Iqbal. To join the Sisterhood Initiative or to find out how you can contribute, Nabeela Iqbal can be reached out on