Shreen Abdul Saroor and founder Nabeela Iqbal
SI’s vision is to make Muslim women be recognised as important stakeholders in society and inspire learning and leadership through volunteering, while raising awareness for the protection and advocacy of the rights of Sri Lankan Muslim women
To commemorate three years since Sisterhood Initiative’s (SI) inception, -“Celebrating SI” was held recently at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies recently.
According to a release issued by SI, this Muslim women’s group was founded in early 2020 by Nabeela Iqbal; an activist with experience in peacebuilding,
The release states, “Sisterhood Initiative is a non-profit, non-political & non-religious discussion and volunteer group, dedicated to understanding and addressing issues faced by Muslim women across the island. The group engages with women from all faiths and backgrounds. Its vision is to make Muslim women be recognised as important stakeholders in society with decision-making power. SI works towards creating a safe space for women to have conversations, to inspire learning and leadership through volunteering, while raising awareness for the protection and advocacy of the rights of Sri Lankan Muslim women.
Piyumi Wattuhewa, the Coordinator for Colombo, described how the unfair treatment that Muslim women were subjected to became increasingly transparent against the backdrop of the Easter Sunday Attacks in 2019. This inspired SI’s founding members to invite women to converse about their experiences. They had an overwhelming response, and from there, the group has since expanded to different parts across the island. As a non-Muslim, Wattuhewa spoke of her experience in Sisterhood as not catering exclusively to Muslim women. In fact, during one of the highlights of the event, members from the audience were asked to say a word that described SI — “inclusivity” was one of them. The other words included “safe space”, “community”, “advocacy” and “freedom”.
Despite the pandemic ensuing almost immediately after SI’s inception, Samiha Muhsin, the Coordinator for Kandy, explained that their most impactful discussions were held online; such as IG lives like “A day in the life of a Muslim Girl in Ramadan”, “Learning about Poson Poya Day” and “Conversation between a Catholic and a Muslim”.
SI had also had heavier conversations, surrounding the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) reforms, women’s participation in politics, forced cremations, which were carried out with relevant experts. But the work done by the SI Team has come at the cost of online attacks and harassment, with the intention of discrediting young female activists.
The group has increasingly come under scrutiny for their work, the slander only worsening under Sri Lanka’s current crisis. The team has been subjected to smear campaigns and thinly veiled threats, especially for their work in bringing light to laws that discriminate against Muslim women, under the MMDA.
But that has not stopped the team. SI has been running a (Legal) Support Team which consults young women who reach out, through social media and its membership, regarding domestic and intimate partner violence, and discrimination in the Quazi courts. Shifa Najumudeen, an Attorney-at-Law and also SI’s Legal Officer, carries out free weekly online consultations for these women. Fellow Sumaiya Frahath assists these cases with her background in Psychology.
One of SI’s biggest milestones is their campaigns team programme. Volunteers were pooled into teams by inter-faith and intra-faith dialogues, women’s rights and the MMDA reforms. They learned about key policy and legislative instruments that shaped Sri Lankan society and were mentored on how to inspire change. Other workshops, with resource persons, included digital storytelling and countering hate speech on social media.
A highlight of SI’s 2022 was drawing murals in Union Place and Slave Island with South Asian artists, Fearless Collective, to depict images of minority women, representing leadership and unity. The group returned to Slave Island, during the height of the economic crisis, to support communities with ration packs distributions.
Key stakeholders who’ve worked with SI present at the event shared their sentiments. Rev. Fr. Andrew Devadason of St. Paul’s Church, Milagiriya, said “All the parents here are very proud to see these young women working at their potential. I am leaving with greater hope. You guys are the hope for this nation. We are getting old, but this nation will not fall because of you. I saw that here as I came, I told Mr. Iqbal (Nabeela’s father) you will initiate change. It’s there in you and all that I have heard here.”
On April 21, 2022, SI in collaboration with the Milagiriya Church organized an Ifthar (breaking fast) event to remember the victims of the Easter Sunday Attacks and the families affected by the unlawful arrests that followed, under the PTA.
“I noticed how much joy is there in the way you work. I have always noticed the duty of care you all have towards getting something moved off the internet or getting a case result and the duty of care that you hold for people who come to you for help or advice. I think that’s very commendable. I really hope you don’t lose sight of it and I have faith that you won’t,” said Saritha Irugalbandara from Hashtag Generation, an organization which SI relays cases regarding online harassment. They also help the team at SI remove harmful content off the internet.
The event concluded with a conversation between Nabeela and the Guest Speaker, Shreen Abdul Saroor, the co-founder of Women’s Action Network. She spoke of her experience working with SI during the government’s policy of forced cremations and its crushing impact on Sri Lankan Muslims. She commented on SI: “I am also one of the admirers of Sisterhood Initiative. Since their inception, I’ve been working with them. I see their volunteerism and how they resonate with the community wherever they go, how they care about the community, how they care about other activists on the ground.”
More information about SI could be obtained by browsing www.sisterhoodinitiative.org or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. The livestream of the ‘Celebrate SI’ event is available on their official Facebook and Instagram pages.
Piyumi Wattuhewa and Samiha Muhsin talking about SI's journey