think FEEL consider

BELIEVEACT

decide

“ My charges are not trivial. You see that in the haste, I think, with which they were accepted. A joke you have told, with a sexist tinge. The language you use, a verbal or physical caress, yes, yes, I know, you say that it is meaningless. I understand. I differ from you. … “ ‘Carol’ in David Mamet’s Oleanna

ISSN 1391-5673

publisher © The Women and Media Collective 56/1, Sarasavi Lane, Castle Street Colombo 8, Sri Lanka. Phone: +94 11 5632045, 2690192, 2690201, 5635900 Fax: + 94 - 11 - 2690192 Email: wmcsrilanka@gmail.com www.facebook.com/ www.womenandmedia.org twitter.com/womenandmedia online OPTIONS magazine: http://options.womenandmedia.org/

editor Vivimarie VanderPoorten

executive editors Sepali Kottegoda Kumudini Samuel

design and layout Velayudan Jayachithra

PICTURE

3

EDITORIAL |Vivimarie VanderPoorten The Word ‘Feminist’| Subha Wijesiriwardena
THINK . FEEL . CONSIDER . DECIDE . BELIEVE . ACT

7

9

The Abaya as Resistance: Psychology & Gender in the Bodu Bala Sena Discourse | Andi Schubert Only till the Rice is Cooked: Discourses on Domestic Violence|Chulani Kodikara PHOTO ESSAY | language | Krishantha Fedricks and Niruba Pushparaj Redefining a suffix... | Anu Ranawana The issue of Miss and Mrs in Health Services | Chandula Kumbukage Language of Silence| Ahalya Satkunaratnam A Female ‘Voice’ Across Languages. A short review of ‘Metta,’ a translation of Sunethra Rajakarunanayaka’s ‘Podu Purushaya’ | Lal Medawattegedara The Distance | Roel Raymond Women through the Tamilian lens | Thulasi Muttulingam The Language of the Mini skirt : from austerity measure to fashion statement | Velayudan Jayachithra Is Islam Inherently Misogynistic? An Interview with Laleh Bakhtiar Laleh Bakhtiar, USA | International Museum of Women in their Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices exhibition

CONTENTS

11

13

22 23

26 30

33 36

38

40

25 28 35

Poems Rats, ants and relatives | Dilini Algama Untitled |Jean Arasanayagam Equal Wor(l)d | Vivimarie VanderPoorten

From the

Editor
Language as Oppression, Language as Resistance

R

obin Lakoff, a pioneering scholar in the field of Language and Gender reminds us of the fact

that folklore and fables, those earliest instruction manuals at our disposal, construct the relationship between women, men and the idea of verbal expression in ways which are oppressive to women. For example in the fairy tale “Seven at a Blow,” the brave little tailor, having killed seven flies with one swat, embroiders himself a belt to that effect and wears it out into the world. He gets into trouble but eventually triumphs. The lesson: verbal assertion brings a man success. On the other hand, in the story ‘The Seven Swans,” a girl’s seven brothers are changed into swans. She can transform them back into men only by sitting in a tree for seven years sewing them shirts out of daisies. If she utters one word during this period, she will fail. She succeeds, despite terrible obstacles. The moral: silence and obedience are the path to success for a woman. Or if not success, the path to not getting destroyed. The way to stay safe and unharmed. From the lack of language (i.e. silence) that is required from a wife who gets raped and beaten daily, in order to protect the good name of the family, to the way a woman should dress (or not dress) in order to not get raped, throughout the ages, women’s expression of themselves, their ‘language’ – be it verbal or non-verbal has been curtailed, ridiculed as being trivial and represented as being confined to the realms of gossip and small talk. The sexist language used to describe women is too familiar to be repeated here. For this issue we invited contributors to interpret the theme of language and gender for themselves, and were happy to receive a varied and interesting range of interpretations which analyse, question and celebrate the language of women and women’s language. We were delighted to receive pieces from first time writers to Options, and also welcomed the interpretations of women and expression articulated by a few male contributors. From an impassioned analysis of why the word ‘feminist’ is so abhorrent to young women today, to a powerful collection of photographs bearing messages from women (and men) for women in the form of placards and posters at a public rally, from a discussion of resistance as symbolized by a form of dress and the language of the saree to the way women use the act of cooking of a curry to express solidarity, from the language of women on a dance floor, to how female voices are affected in the act of translating and from an insightful analysis of dominant and competing discourses about violence in the home to thoughts on words and translations in religious texts, we offer you in this issue a mix of prose and poetry, the verbal and the visual, the pithy and the profound. We hope the pieces in this issue of OPTIONS will provoke our readers to pay more attention to language, a phenomenon which is seemingly neutral and taken for granted because it is so fundamental and blended into our construction of the world. And of course, we hope you will be entertained as well.
4
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

I’d like to end with a quote from Amy Cunningham’s brilliant 2004 essay “Why Women Smile”, since smiling is also so much part of the ‘language’ expected of women, and so much part of remaining silent. “To limit a woman to one expression is like editing down an orchestra to one instrument. And the search for more authentic means of expression isn’t easy in a culture in which women are still expected to be magnanimous smilers, helpmates in crisis, and curators of everybody else’s morale. But change is already floating in the high winds…”

Vivimarie V anderPoorten VanderP oorten anderP

“For most of history, 'anonymous' was a woman"
Virginia Woolf

5
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Photo: Revati Chawla

Photo | Krishantha Fedricks

Language

The W ord ‘Feminist’ Word

A

discussion springs up; a theatre director says that she had heard someone classifying the kind of theatre she makes as ‘feminist theatre’. She finds this disconcerting; it is not her intention after all. She wants to distance herself from the idea of ‘feminist theatre’ and everyone but me in the room seems to believe that that idea of ‘feminist theatre’ is outdated – that perhaps that idea of ‘feminism’ itself is outdated. It reminds me that in the recent past, I’ve encountered a lot of young women who say ‘I’m not a feminist’ with certainty. In that room, ‘feminism’ hangs about, uncomfortable, like a dirty word, for a bit longer before the conversation moves on. Despite the word ‘feminism’ being neither singular nor monolithic, and being a broad classification used to loosely describe varying ideologies and beliefs, it is universally acknowledged that the ‘feminist’ movement as a whole – formalized for the first time in parts of Europe in the late 1800s – subscribes to some very fundamental common values, regardless of varying classifications and

So why did this word ‘feminist’ take on such negative connotations? When did those unpleasant stereotypes - the cliché of the ‘hairy man-hater’, the ‘bitter divorced single-mother’ – become what defined the word in the minds of young, modern women?

practices. Feminism, at its core, is a humanist ideology that calls for dignity and equal rights for all. Since its foundation, feminism as a movement has grown to address everchanging concerns and evolving social contexts. Fights for the right to vote turned

Subha W ijesiriwardena Wijesiriwardena
Subha is an actor and a blogger living in Colombo. Her writing is available for reading at www.blogsmw.wordpress.com.

Language

into fights for seats in parliament; fights for access to contraception turned into fights for sexual liberation; fights for employment turned into fights for equal pay. The movement has won some of its battles and overcome some of its hurdles; we are closer to that idealistic goal of equality than we have ever been before. It is in this context, where feminists have fought hard for every inch they ever gained and every step they ever walked forward for the last two hundred years, that young women today are comfortable enough to shun the term ‘feminism’. It is while we reap the benefits of the difficult battles fought before us, while we are able to enjoy the comforts of ‘equality’, safety, dignity – for the most part – that we are able to say, smugly, ‘I’m not a feminist’. So why did this word ‘feminist’ take on such negative connotations? When did those unpleasant stereotypes - the cliché of the ‘hairy man-hater’, the ‘bitter divorced single-mother’ – become what defined the word in the minds of young, modern women? Why did the tide turn – where young women went from being voraciously ‘feminist’ to confidently ‘nonfeminist’? To say that ‘feminists’ are ‘man-haters’ is simply ignorant and untrue; however, it is not impossible to think of a time in which many women were extremely angry at certain structures created seemingly by men, structures which slowly chipped away at the very fabric of our societies for hundreds of years, diminishing our sense of respect. It is not impossible to think of a

time in which many women were angry at the blatant discrimination and violence they faced. It is not impossible to think of ‘feminism’ being born as a resistance to ‘misogyny’ – a hatred of women. It may not be totally outlandish then to imagine that, at some point, ‘feminists’ were inherently very, very angry people. And why not? It was an absolute rejection of injustice. And injustice makes people angry; or it should anyway. You need only look around yourself today to know that the world you live in is a carefully fought for world; it did not happen randomly. It did not evolve into what it is by chance but because of the hard work of committed and courageous men and women, who for centuries, demanded that we treat each other as we should: as equals. You also only need look around you today to know that the struggle that began with them is far from over. So the next time a young woman tells you ‘I’m not a feminist’, remind her it is her privilege to be able to even make that choice; that many women before her fought hard and bravely, and made many sacrifices, so that she could stand there, in a world where the sheer extent of injustice did not make her shake with anger, did not make her skin crawl. The next time a young woman asks you ‘What are feminists so angry about?’ remind her that there is plenty to be angry about – still.

8
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

The Abaya as Resistance:
Psychology and Gender in the Bodu Bala Sena Discourse

T

here has been a noticeable increase in the discourse over the cultural life of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka over the past few months, much of it driven by the emergence of a few hardline nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena(BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya. The latest campaign among these groups seeks to ban the Abaya, a traditional dress worn by Muslim women. The language used by a member of the BBS in announcing their ban Abaya campaign raises questions about the gendered, discursive existence of hate speech.1

Andi Schubert
Andi is a researcher attached to the Social Scientists Association, Sri Lanka, where he explores his interests in cultural studies and critical theory. He graduated with a BA in English from the University of Kelaniya in 2009.

The psychology of hate speech offered me some solutions to these questions. Hate speech is only effective in symbiosis and requires the words of the speaker as well as the reaction of the listener. This is because it is only this response that can

Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

The campaign to ban the Abaya has been particular puzzling for me. Recently an official from the BBS noted “ I have a fundamental right when I go in the street to see the face of a person”.2 It was the patent absurdity of this statement that struck me because the discourse of human rights and fundamental rights has been rejected and pilloried by Sinhala nationalist organizations. This raises the question - what is the BBS’ problem with a Muslim woman choosing to wear an Abaya and cover her face? Why not raise issues with Muslim men who wear helmets for example?

9

Language

affirm and recognize the speaker’s position in the symbolic social structure. Therefore the objective of hate speech is not only to injure the listener but also to affirm the speaker’s identity as well. The BBS discourse on the Abaya shows that this affirmation requires not only speech (voice) but also relies on the speaker’s gaze. The presence of the Abaya represents a problem for the BBS because it masks the listener’s facial response from the sight of the speaker. This suggests that the speaker of hate speech requires a more physical response from the listener which confirms the recognition of the hate speech and thereby affirms the identity of the speaker. In other words, just hearing

alone is not sufficient but hate speech also requires confirmation of receipt by the gaze of the speaker.3 I realized that the BBS believed the Abaya violated their fundamental rights not because it is a symbol of Muslim culture but because it masks the reaction of the Muslim woman to their hate speech. This arrests the affirmation of their identity and therefore psychologically the Abaya represents, both literally and metaphorically, a mask that arrests hate speech from taking its full effect. It reminds the BBS of its loss of place within the symbolic social structure after the war. Understood in this way the wearing of the Abaya not only represents a celebration of culture but also foregrounds a space of gendered resistance to the rhetoric of hate.

10
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

The BBS discourse on the Abaya shows that this affirmation requires not only speech (voice) but also relies on the speaker ’s gaze. The speaker’s presence of the Abaya represents a problem for the BBS because it masks the listener ’s facial response from listener’s the sight of the speaker . This speaker. suggests that the speaker of hate speech requires a more physical response from the listener which confirms the recognition of the hate speech and thereby affirms the identity of the speaker . speaker.

Notes
Salecl, R. (2000). (per)Versions of Love and Hate. London & New York: Verso.

Footnotes
1

2

3

Given the utterances of BBS in public as well as the campaign that has been carried out against Muslim cultural practices such as Halal certification and the Abaya, I believe I am justified in analyzing these comments as a form of hate speech. This was said by Dilantha Withanage, Chief Executive Officer, Bodu Bala Sena. For the full media report and the comments made by Withanage, see : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130407/assri-lanka-muslims-under-fire/?utm_hp_ref=homepage& ir=homepage The receipt of this confirmation becomes visible through physical expressions of anger, hurt, pain, dismay, annoyance etc.


I

Only till the Rice is Cooked:

Discourses on Domestic V iolence Violence
n August 2005, the Sri Lankan Parliament unanimously passed the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 (PDVA). The unanimous vote on the PDVA masked deep hostility and anxieties expressed by a number of Members of Parliament during the parliamentary debate, about the need for such an act, its ‘western’, NGO origins antithetical to Sri Lankan culture and its negative impact on the family. Current day political leaders and representatives continue to question the need for the Act. Their discourse is marked not so much by a denial of the prevalence of domestic violence but by the tendency to normalize, trivialise and legitimise it by invoking patriarchal cultural narratives and local ‘wisdom’. One old proverb, particularly popular with politicians, is Gedara Sandu Batha Idenka vitharai , which translates as ‘violence in the home is only until the rice is cooked’, and which constructs domestic violence as a momentary disruption in an otherwise calm and peaceful household. Take for instance, what the President had to say at a Women’s Day celebration held in his constituency, Hambantota, in 2010: We have introduced laws to bring relief to women. Sometimes I wonder whether these laws are excessive. Some laws from the west have been introduced in Sri Lanka. At first glance they seem very attractive. But Sri Lankan women occupy a high status based on our culture which is 2500 years old. . . and under current legal regulations, our cultural values are being weakened, while the legal bond has been strengthened. http:// groundviews.org/2012/08/08/thedomestic-violence-act-seven-yearson/ - _ftn2 There is a saying that we have heard that domestic violence is only until the rice is cooked. When two people who are different to each other live together under one roof there will be problems. These problems most often will only be until the rice is cooked. Sometimes they may last longer and be reported to the police. According to the existing law, the police now have to file a case in

11
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Chulani K odikara Kodikara
Chulani is Senior Researcher at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo. She works on issues at the intersection of law, gender and feminism.

Language

court. Then the husband is not allowed to enter his own home. Then the rice may get cooked, but the parties have gone to court to file for divorce . . .. We end up unable to reconcile the husband and wife. We are now complicit in their separation. This is my own view Yet an alternative discourse, which has for the most part remained private between victim-survivors and institutional workers about the pain, trauma, shame, loss of self esteem and humiliation suffered by victim-survivors and their struggles to free themselves of violence, is now seeping into the public domain contradicting and challenging the dominant discourse. Take the case of Upeksha Swarnamali (Pabha), Member of Parliament, who spoke about her experience of domestic violence before the Parliament in March 2011. In February 2011, the media reported that she was hospitalized after being assaulted by her husband. On her recovery and return to Parliament, she spoke about her experience of domestic violence appealing to all 225 Members of Parliament that they should unite to address the problem: After my experience of violence, I reflected on it and I tried to find out more about this. I found that 60% of Sri Lankan women are beaten and 44% of pregnant women are also beaten. These women are traumatized and suffer because of men’s violence against them. I want to assist such women. I hope that all parliamentarians will join me to address this problem. Domestic violence should be eradicated from this country.

In November 2011, Roel Raymond, a blogger who describes herself as a mother, lover, rock and roller, journalist, writer, model, thinker, freedom fighter, and undertaker’s daughter posted an even more impassioned and powerful public account of a personal experience of domestic abuse on a blog curated by the Women and Media Collective: She begins by saying “It has never been easy for me to speak of what took place during those 5 years I was married. . . . I mean to now because my story or some part of it may resonate with someone out there . . .” These two narratives offer a stark contrast to the dominant public discourse on domestic violence described above and maybe described as reverse discourses, wherein victim-survivors are speaking up publicly on their own behalf. As Naila Kabeer points out the emergence of narratives, of opinions and arguments about what was previously unquestioned implies the co-existence of ‘competing possibles’. That domestic violence and the PDVA is ‘high politics’ enough for the President to express concern about it indicates the power of this alternative discourse. The inevitable contestation between these discourses will be central to new ways of thinking and acting not just in relation to domestic violence in Sri Lanka, but to advancing women’s rights and gender equality in general.

12
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Note
This article is based on an ICES Working Paper titled “Only Until the Rice is Cooked: The Domestic Violence Act, Cultural Narratives and Familial Ideology in Sri Lanka” published in 2012.

‘Let’s Condemn Domestic Violence’

PHO TO ESSA Y | language PHOT ESSAY
KRISHANTHA FEDRICKS
Domestic violence – or Gender Based Violence (GBV) is a major and growing public health problem. According to a 2012 publication of the Asian Human Rights Commission, in Sri Lanka 30-40 percent of women suffer from some kind of violence. And more than 60 percent are victims of domestic violence in some form. Despite the recognition of GBV as a crime — the laws that deal with the phenomenon in include the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 of 2005 and the Penal Code – the actual addressing of the issue is made murky by social perceptions, expectations of gendered roles and identities. On February 14th this year, many women, and also men, took to the streets with banners and placards as part of a world wide initiative called ‘One Billion Rising’ to protest against violence that often goes unpunished and unmitigated due to a myriad reasons, including……SILENCE.

13
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Krishantha F edricks Fedricks
Krishantha Fedricks works as a lecturer in language and linguistics at the department of Sinhala, University of Colombo. In photography, which is a favourite pastime, he tries to verbalize the visual.

PHO TO ESSA Y | language PHOT ESSAY
KRISHANTHA FEDRICKS

14
Choice Choice is is Power Power | OPTIONS 2013

PHO TO ESSA Y | language PHOT ESSAY
KRISHANTHA FEDRICKS

15
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

16
2013 Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

PHO TO ESSA Y | language PHOT ESSAY
KRISHANTHA FEDRICKS

TO ESSA Y language | PHO PHOT ESSAY
KRISHANTHA FEDRICKS

“From Passive voice to Active Voice”: blame perpetrators, not victims.

17
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

18

Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

PHO TO ESSA Y| PHOT ESSAY

‘Let’s give humanity meaning, ‘Let’s condemn sexual harassment.’

language

KRISHANTHA FEDRICKS
19
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

PHO TO ESSA Y | language PHOT ESSAY
NIRUBA PUSHP ARAJ PUSHPARAJ
20
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Niruba
Niruba is a director at Organisation for Visual Progression.

21
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

“One rape is One rape too many”

PHO TO ESSA Y | language PHOT ESSAY
KRISHANTHA FEDRICKS

Redefining a suffix...
P
ro-life . There’s a phrase that’s madly, badly, crassly thrown around in conversation, in television punditry, by religious zealots, activists. Pro (tect) life. Okay. I’m in favour of abortion and that’s why I’m pro-life. Protect the life and the dignity of the young girl raped, abused by her father, uncle, brother, neighbor and carrying inside her the child of that moment (how can she keep it?). Protect the life of the mother dying because the child inside her will kill her body, debilitate her (her life is being lived, it has a narrative still, language, terms, memories belonging to her, her community). Protect the life of the woman, pregnant, alone. (okay, sure it was by her boyfriend) (but can she call her mother for support?) (can she call her boyfriend?) (she’s lost count of the times he asked her if she was on the pill). Protect the life of the woman in poverty, desperate. (there’s too many mouths to feed already) (is there dignity, life in this impoverished life?)

22
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Encounter her life, protect it. Work for her life, so that she stops being the victim, defending her right to be.
Anu Ranawana
Anu is a wishful academic and a part-time activist. She flits around between Edmonton, CA and Oxford, UK.

Choice. Like there is one.

Photo - www.polyvore.com

The issue
of Miss and Mrs in

Health Services
L
ast December I phoned a leading private hospital to channel a dermatologist. The telephone-operator after giving me an appointment asked for my name and contact number as it was part of the procedure. Then she surprisingly asked, “Are you Miss Chandula or Mrs Chandula?” I replied, “It’s Miss Chandula” and in return I asked why she asked that question? This made her very uncomfortable and she struggled to come up with an answer. “Madam it’s for the purpose of introducing you to the doctor,” she said. Women in Sri Lanka irrespective of their age, class, religion and race, when seeking medical services come across instances are faced with answering the question “are you married ?” or “Are you Miss or Mrs.?.” This comes up in many contexts and specially when seeking doctors’ appointments, medical advice, medical

I wonder whether passing judgmental comments about, or denying medical assistance to women seeking treatment for sexually transmitted diseases or to women seeking to purchase contraceptives, based on their marital status serves any noble purpose or is likely to solve any perceived problem.
tests, contraceptives and other reproductive health related services. It is not clear whether the question always has relevance to the services being provided or sought. A person falls sick irrespective of their marital status. And doctors prescribe medicine according to the illness, not according to the patient’s marital status. A former colleague of mine
23
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Chandula K umbukage Kumbukage
Chandula is a post graduate student of the University of Colombo specializing on Conflict and Peace Studies. She graduated from the University of Sri Jayawardanapura. Her professional and academic work focuses on: Human Rights, Gender, Peace Building, Post-war development and Reconciliation.

Language

who went to get a pregnancy related test, after giving her full name was asked “Mrs, right?” by the nurse attending to her. I wonder whether her marital status was supposed to have any impact on the results of her medical test! The question creates a lot of inconvenience and humiliation to women (mostly young) seeking medical services pertaining to reproductive health. I have heard of instances where pharmacists check for the wedding ring before issuing contraceptives to women and also of instances where pharmacists ask “are you married?.” When they don’t spot the ring they eventually refuse to issue contraceptives to women who answer “No.” On a more serious note, Rajini (name changed) who met a gynecologist to check if she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease was refused treatment by the gynecologist, simply because Rajini was unmarried. Evidently, such discrimination not only humiliates and inconveniences a woman, but also deprives her of critically important medical and health care services she is entitled to as a human, irrespective of race, class, caste, gender, religion and marital status.
24
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

humiliate and deprive a person of medical care as opposed to treating a patient irrespective of whom she is and where she comes from. I wonder whether passing judgmental comments about, or denying medical assistance to women seeking treatment for sexually transmitted diseases or to women seeking to purchase contraceptives, based on their marital status serves any noble purpose or is likely to solve any perceived problem. Refusing medical assistance to an unmarried woman, who may have contracted a sexual transmitted decease (STD) on the ground that she is unmarried, will worsen her condition on one hand and on the other hand will contribute to transmission of the disease among others. Refusal to issue condoms to unmarried women in the hope that it will discourage them from having sex may not stop them from engaging in sex. Rather, it will lead to many unwanted pregnancies, abortions and sexually transmitted deceases in society. Such discrimination cannot be healthy. Can it?

Some might interpret the act of asking “are you Miss or Mrs” as a way of according respect to a person when addressing that person by name. But when looking at the instances I have mentioned it appears that the question is posed as a tool to judge and classify a person (i.e. a woman), as opposed to judging a person’s illness; to

Image: http://www.change.org/petitions/u-s-governmentprinting-office-remove-miss-and-mrs-as-titles-ongovernment-documentation

Photo | Dilini Algama

Dilini Algama
Lives with a handful of friends in Germany, where there are no relatives.

Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

8% of Sri Lankan students study abroad Even less living on student assistant salaries Christmas on Skype Practicing painful economy Till the notification goes from SMS 2 to SMS 1 Never happens, end up ruing the phone bill Every freaking month Phone calls to parents that fall ill, Their doctors and hospitals, kindly nurses that read out medical charts and explain, discuss Choiceless ghost involvement, self-substitution Unfulfilled yearning to hold nervous hands, stroke soft hair And some Sri Lankan diaspora aunt in Melbourne Stutters and spits on Skype one day To wag a fat finger and say that She knows what I’m doing in a European country, oh she knows She has heard everything, oh yes she has You’re sleeping around with a white man, she snickers righteously with furious wrist action Effectively wiping off her 25 years of integration And that, that is why your mother is ill so often What a coincidence Yes, I say and that’s exactly her physician’s informed medical diagnosis And one man? It’s ten, really Not just German, international flavours from China, Africa, etc And I can’t control it, oh no Here, you respect me, she screams, you shut up! You’re a child and I’m your elder, she insists, Her spit raining on her webcam Respect, that has to be earned, I tell her with a smile Sitting back and crossing my legs Besides, I don’t have the time for this Have a lot of sleeping around to do Toodle-oo

Rats, ants and relati ves

25

Language of Silence
ngrid has a cadence to her step, a meditative repetition simultaneously offbeat in its minute, up and down, lift and fall. Her unwillingness to be pinned down to any beat or metre, her refusal to adhere to defined space or sound feels like an enactment of the not there/not here, but the being/existing of and in the moment. And we, her girlfriends, are with her, open to being saturated by Chicago’s house music, a music which has always provided us a refuge, offering us space and process to experience both presence and present. Our solo syncopations are gathered ensemble in the ring we form on the dance floor, but within what seems like moments of moving, a hand landing on Ingrid’s

I

Each round is met mostly with silence and a reluctant spilling of a few instructive words: ‘We just want to dance;’

26
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Ahalya Satkunaratnam
Ahalya is currently an Andrew W. Mellon PostDoctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign, appointed to the Department of Dance and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. She also serves on the editorial collective of SAMAR: the South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection and is an active choreographer and performer.

crotch catches our attention. Speedy in cutting space and quick in temporal moment—that in recalling it for this act of writing it down—I am amazed and perplexed by the deftness of the maneuver, this emotional response, furthered by the maneuver’s arguable execution under the influence (of alcohol). We stop. We stare. We stand next to Ingrid, and after a terse but polite admonition, return to our dance. But, the perpetrator circles through the packed dance floor to

Language

. . . my Tamil, a knowledge gained primarily in the classroom and within the family and thus lacking any ‘street’ was able to say with polite sternness, ‘leave us alone.’

return at least three times, attempting in each cycle to penetrate the circle we form. Each round is met mostly with silence and a reluctant spilling of a few instructive words: “We just want to dance;” “She’s not interested.” Our restrained language, unreflective of our discomfort, is more an expression of our desire to remain in the space, to continue dancing to our house music, to stay in our perceived sanctuary. This unwillingness to divulge our discomfort on a Chicago dance floor reminds me of another moment climbing Adam’s Peak with my friend during pilgrimage season. Then, two men alternated between following us and waiting for us as we hiked the mountainside from night till dawn. Having only started to learn Sinhala, I found myself painfully mute, only able to express through few words and my body, which was the justification for the attention in the first place. Our journey to the mountain’s base just hours earlier was marked by the experience of being followed from bus to train station to bus by one man. Then, my Tamil, a knowledge gained primarily in the classroom and within the family and thus lacking any “street” was able to say with polite sternness, “leave us alone.” Remembering

this sparked my recollection of a train ride from Madurai to Chennai, where, as I lay on the top bunk in a sleeper car, a man repeatedly threw nuts and bolts at me throughout the night. I feigned sleep, pretending to be unharmed until sleep offered me escape. Borderless and timeless, these memories are the everyday experience of most every woman. They are, arguably, the everyday of every man. The lack of language or an unwillingness to deploy it does not diminish the physical and visceral assertion to exist and be. In spite of the critiques of not adequately resisting through voice and language, I want to allow my silence and stillness to hold power for a moment—a power in survival that offered me reflection and declaration in different space and time. But, maybe too, the lack of language is an expression of exhaustion with the everyday, one that simultaneously holds a desire for a different tomorrow, one that is reminded of a yesterday shrouded in an uncomfortable quiet.

27
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Untitled
At Last I have summoned the courage to widow myself although my husband still lives. For each tortured year I have broken my glass bangles one by one, my hands bearing henna traceries of blood as the glass cuts into the flesh. Those henna patterns so intricately painted on my hands, my palms, the soles of my feet with their silver toe-rings as those sacred marriage rituals were being performed, the wealth, what little my parents possessed, gifted as dowry to appease the avid carving of the consummation of the traditional marriage flower-bed my new life began, my dowry had been swallowed into the maws of the bridegroom’s family, but was their greed assuaged/ My virginity had been proved, the witnesses had been assured of my chastity, my purity, now they turned their attention to all the gifts lavished on them by my family who had toiled long years to accumulated their meagre wealth, the possessions demanded, were household goods, furniture, all the much vaunted household amenities, gold sovereigns, piles and piles of richly embellished sarees, cooking utensils of stainless steel what else, what else, what else? Yes a refrigerator, a car, a palanquin, an elephant were out of the date. Already my father was deep in debt his lands mortgaged or sold, their daily food whittled down to coarse grained roti, rice and dhal. In my new home I was the last tot eat, I cooked all the meals, served my husband the choicest morsels and ate the remains of each feast, my hands growing sore and rough more, more, more the family ceaselessly importuned. Jean Arasanayagam
Jean Arasanayagam is one of Sri Lanka’s most well known poets.

28
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

The family fortunes had dwindled they feared for my future, I had other sisters to be married off too.

Language

My mother aged before her time, her neck bare of its thali, her wrists bare of bracelets, but her glass bangles were preciouse to her. Day by day I was battered, abused burned with smoldering brands draw from the fire, in stealth my own scant possessions snatched away And then my child was born, a son all care was lavished on him I was case aside. My husband was the onlooker he tuned his face away from my daily torture, my face was scarred, my arms bore welts My son wh I loved and nurtured at my breast was taken away from me. He was no longer mine. Battered and bashed, I had no reprieve. I planned my escape from brutal captivity. Found shelter in a Battered Women’s Refuge, a heaven, a commune not the prison of marriage. I broke my glass bangle one by one. Swept off the splinters, my self-imposed widowhood gave me freedom. I would not end like other widows in a refugee in Varanasi, my head shaved, wearing white, performing menial tasks, until death released me I felt human once again, met only with kindness woman to woman, my wrists were bare of those fragile, brittle bangles, a widow, self created yes, my husband was dead, dead to me. I was widow, but my husband was still alive. I gloried in the freedom from abuse and violence a widow but no longer chained and shackled.

29
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

A Female ‘Voice’ Across Languages
A short review of ‘Metta,’ a translation of Sunethra Rajakarunanayaka’ s‘ Rajakarunanayaka’s Podu Purushaya’

L

iterary texts, according to Bennet and Royle (2004), are about

‘extraordinary voices.’ The space occupied by literature is where voices are ‘evoked’ or ‘bodied forth.’ Is it possible for ‘voices’ in literary texts to travel across languages without losing their power (or passivity), beauty (or squalor) and strangeness (or dullness)? Perhaps a good case in point would be ‘Metta,’ an English translation of Sunethra Rajakarunanayaka’s Sinhala novel ‘Podu Purushaya,’ by Carmen
30
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Wickramagamage.

Lal Medawattegedara
Lal is a lecturer in English at the Open University of Sri Lanka. His first novel, ‘Playing Pillow Politics at Maha Gaani Kanda” which won the 2012 Gratiaen Award, will be published later this year.

Language

‘Podu Purushaya’ — regardless of the explicit masculine pronoun in the title – is a novel primarily about females. It is a female exploration on possibilities of life. The elusive female narrator, Varnasi, uses an (imaginary) earthquake to disrupt a stereotypically ‘blissful’ life of a dedicated housewife. In the end, all this turns out to be unreal – a mere textual exercise possibly undertaken by the narrator to explore an alternative response to life. However, this textual world is not in vain. It helps the narrator transcend from mundane worldly attachments and resentments to a high priestess who subscribes to universal love (Metta).

Let me consider two spaces (among many) in the Sinhala novel where the voice of Varnasi is at its most intense: a) when she yearns to be kissed by Sasha b) when she subscribes to universal love with a narration as powerful as the one delivered by Maurya in Irish writer Synge’s ‘Rider’s to the Sea.’

In the first instance, Varnasi expresses her wish to be kissed by Sasha using the Sinhala words ‘muhuna imbinna.’ These words created an impression in my head of Varanasi’s desire as a combination of sensuality and (maternal) affection,

possibly the latter acting as a sort of deterrent to the former; Varanasi in this

When I first read the two books, in Sinhala and English, one of the primary focuses I had in my mind was the ‘voice’ – possibly because as a writer of fiction myself, my main concern in crafting a story is the consistency and the power of the ‘voice.’ Is the ‘voice’ of Varanasi in the Sinhala text the same as the Varanasi of the English translation? Before I explore the answer, I would like to suggest a possibility: I would prefer if the voice of Varanasi in Sinhala and English are different.

expression also suggests that she is yet uninitiated in the art of romantic love. The English equivalent of the above phrase is ‘kiss’: Varnasi who wanted to be kissed is

The elusive female narrator , narrator, Varnasi, uses an (imaginary) earth quake to disrupt a blissful’ life of a ‘blissful’ stereotypically ‘ dedicated house wife. In the end, all this turns out to be unreal – a mere textual exercise possibly undertaken by the narrator to explore an alternative response to life.
31
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Language

sensual, focused, romantically savvy and does not mince her words.

of Varnasi. My reaction is no different, I can feel her mental transcendence, and her passionate endeavor to declare her

In the second instance, when Varnasi confidently declares her wisdom of universal love where everyone – including Prabhakaran, – becomes her children, she uses the term ‘umbala’ to address her audience. For me that term gives her a clear sense of authority, power and position. I felt obliged to listen to her and absorb her teaching. The English translation resorts to longer syntax and refined words (perplex, alien, nurture) to voice the same philosophical sentiments

wisdom – she does not arrest me with a word like ‘umbala,’ nevertheless, she does influence me to take her seriously.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that the translation of Podu Purushaya has faithfully captured the narrative structure, the intricacies of plot and subtleties of characters of the original novel. As far as I am concerned the ‘voice’ of the original novel has become an original voice in the English translation. At the same time, the English translation has freed the novel from the grasp of the male noun (Purushaya)

when V arnasi confidently Varnasi declares her wisdom of universal love where everyone – including P rabhakaran, – Prabhakaran, becomes her children, she uses the term ‘umbala ’ to ‘umbala’ address her audience.
32
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

by resorting to the thematic core of the novel, where the need to transcend resentment is raised and the solution suggested is Metta or loving kindness.

“The language of our forefathers created the world within which we live; words established the perimeter of their dreams. In this piece I hoped to portray the insufficiency of language in communication; how it is yet unable to transcend the barriers of caste and race, and how we must both dream larger than our forefathers did, and imagine a language with which to express it.”

‘Implement the law related to Violence against Women’

The Distance
aro pulled the trailing end of her skirt, in front, with one brightly bangled hand, as she shoved the yakada gate - it’s peeling white paint and yellow underbelly shimmering translucent with raindrops shut behind her with a sharp push of a swinging hip, and, balancing the small glass bowl of aromatic fish swimming in oil and spice infused curry in her other hand, began walking up the circular path to the stately old home ahead.

S

It had rained, very early, and the morning around her was fresh and sweet-smelling. The sun had not yet peeped out from it’s hiding place behind the grey skies. Saro patted down the loose hair about her head with her one free hand, and, as she did, allowed the tip of a finger rest, momentarily, tenderly, on the painted red spot high up on her forehead. A soft smile played on her lips as she thought about Praveen, and how she had known, the minute she saw him, that he would love her more than life. She was at the house now and could make out, through the clean, white, lace curtains hanging at the open, front door,

Photo | Krishantha Fredricks

33
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Roel R aymond Raymond
Person. Writes.

Language

dark forms of wooden furniture, polished red floors, and simple brass artefacts - all glowing warmly in the light from a solitary electric bulb in a far corner. Outside, the broad veranda was uncharacteristically empty; a slew of newspapers on the floor, and on an ornate stool besides one of two hansi-putuwas, an half empty glass, and, a small brass bell! Saro picked the object up, and shook it, emitting a delicate sound that pleased her ears. She dimpled with pleasure, as she shook it, once more, this time, louder. It had begun to rain again, gently. As gently as the tears had poured from Mrs. Witanachchi’s eyes, last night, as her husband’s hairy hands wrapped themselves around her throat, as he tore at her voluminous nightgown in animalistic frenzy.

Saro had watched from her dank kitchen window, her slim form framed in mute stillness against the light, until Mrs. Witanachchi’s dead eyes had met hers and a heavy tiredness had settled over Saro, who went back to bed. But this morning she had made fish curry, and Mrs.Witanachchi was to have some. It was to be a gesture of friendship, one of solidarity. A kindly deed on which was etched the words, ‘I Understand’. Mrs. Witanachchi stood stiffly, plump white arms clasped tightly in front of a beautiful green saree; gold gleaming on her arms, neck and the lobes of her ears. But she made no move to accept the glass bowl of pungent warm curry from Saro’s outstretched hand. Saro smiled uncertainly - ‘I made fish curry’, she repeated, and with a gentle thrust of her already outstretched hand said, ‘and this is for you’. The distance between them stretched for miles. A crow croaked portentously in the distance, when, in a sudden, swift, clawing movement, Mrs. Witanachchi knocked the glass bowl in Saro’s hand, viciously to the floor.


34
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

It was to be a gesture of friendship, one of solidarity. A kindly deed on which was etched the words, ‘I understand.’

Equal Wor(l)d
feminism/images/23761285/title/ Give me a world of words feminist-fairy-godmother-photo where woman is merely the opposite of man where a governess governs and a man who dares to have more than one lover sometimes risks being called a slut give me a world of phrases inhabited by eligible spinsters and sour bachelors where successful women were ambitious not aggressive where loud-mouthed men are called fish husbands a world where she climbed the corporate ladder not slept her way to the top Give me a planet where a woman is Lady and Mistress of her fate Give me a history where a courtesan, like a courtier, was really a person who attended a sovereign’s court Give me a lexicon 35 where a Matron is just like a Patron only prettier. Cartoon : http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/

(From Stitch Your Eyelids Shut)

Vivimarie V anderP oorten VanderP anderPoorten
Vivimarie works as a senior lecturer in language and linguistics at the Open University of Sri Lanka. As a teacher and researcher she is interested in the intersections between society and language. Because that is not enough to satisfy her need to be immersed in the world of language, she resorts to writing poetry.

Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Women through the Tamilian lens
J

affna, 2003: I was cycling down Palaly road wearing ‘shocking’ attire. Pants and a loose long top that came to mid-thigh! In the peninsula where women wore skirts/ dresses or saris exclusively, wearing the socalled western and indecent attire of pants was just ‘asking’ for it. I had become inured to the negative, sarcastic comments within a few months of relocating there, so took no notice of the various cat-calls and witticisms from the self-appointed upholders of feminine virtue - the jobless male youths hanging out at nooks and corners. On this particular day however, something brought a smile to my lips. They started singing a well-known movie song in order to taunt me: Senthamil nattu tamilachiye, Selai udukka thanyanguriye…. (Tamil woman from a pure Tamil land, yet you shirk to wear the sari). In spite of myself, I started grinning. And that surprised the boys into shared laughter too – they let me past without any more hassle.

36
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Catchy beat, amusing lyrics – but a song that is downright derogatory to women. Yet I listened to it and appreciated it for years without ever even wondering if it was not wrong to be so derogatory of one sex in particular. Sure I love the sari, but it’s an inconvenient dress form to wear everyday and I don’t want to.

Thulasi Muttulingam
Thulasi is a journalist, budding feminist and perennial truth seeker. She was told as a child that ‘curiosity killed the cat’ so instead of a cat, she became a journalist!

Language

Which brings me to my current dilemma. Is it wrong on my part to like that song so much? Well, I know it is, but I can’t seem to help it. It is a catchy tune (composed by A.R Rahman, no less) and had the lyrics penned by one of Tamil Nadu’s foremost poets, Vairamuttu. Catchy beat, amusing lyrics – but a song that is downright derogatory to women. Yet I listened to it and appreciated it for years without ever even wondering if it was not wrong to be so derogatory of one sex in particular. Sure I love the sari, but it’s an inconvenient dress form to wear everyday and I don’t want to. Whenever my chauvinistic male cousin sniped at me for wearing pants, insinuating that I was a disgrace to my culture, I would snap at him, “First you wear the veshti and then come talk to me. You are wearing pants too.” Yet you don’t find any Tamil songs making fun of that. It’s only the women’s job to uphold culture apparently – and the men’s job to point it out if they err. In the song, the actor Sathyaraj wears traditional clothing of veshti and shirt while the actress Sukanya sports western clothes. At least, they had enough sense to know that they couldn’t point fingers without wearing traditional clothes themselves first – but the Tamil masses who have accepted and continue to enjoy this song without question are not so finicky themselves. How responsible is it then, to let loose a song like this in a culture where women are always held up to higher standards of behaviour than men?

The youths singing that song to taunt me were sporting pants, shirts, caps, shoes… all western attire, so just what gave them the right to taunt females who chose to wear pants? While overt criticism like my cousin’s never failed to rile me, this song by being so catchy and funny got past my guard. Yet how many impressionable youths would subscribe to the message insidiously relayed thereby? Comments underneath youtube videos of the song, relay the same dilemma on whether to like the song or not. Youtube it if you can, it is worth a watch. The most liked comment calls out to men’s hypocrisy on liking the song while wearing western clothes themselves. Another commenter (male) has left a comment about being torn between the catchy beat and insulting lyrics. It’s so creatively done though that I still can’t take offence at it. According to my sister, it’s too good a song to dislike and only ‘radical feminists without a sense of humour’ will dislike it. I don’t know about that but I really can’t bring myself to say I dislike the song, even though the message conveyed is out and out misogynistic. This paradox offers a lot of food for thought. Just because something is very creatively and eloquently done, why should it not be challenged? Songs of this type (and there are many in Tamil) are almost the equivalent of the Trojan horse among women. They have let it in themselves and are patting it on the head.

37
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Song
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbwgBS_lpag

Ms. S. Jayanthi (52) residing in Colombo 6, speaks of her memories of wearing the mini in the 70’s, Sri Lanka. Women used to wear the ‘mini gowma’(mini dress / mini) which was as popular as the ‘mal cheeththe’ (floral printed cloth). In the context of culture, dress and women in Sri Lanka, the fact that the mini was a fashion statement during the early 70s is remarkable, considering the negative attitudes towards the mini today. In this audio clip Jayanthi shares her thoughts and concerns about freedom, society and security for women in relation to wearing the mini. (Translation from the Tamil)

The L anguage of the Mini skirt : Language
from austerity measure to fashion statement

“M

y name is Jayanthi. Those days we were given just two yards of cloth in exchange for a coupon card. It was scanty for our height and we had to stitch a short and tight gown (frock): a mini. On the other hand, it also became the fashion at that time. It was no issue and was not a problem when we wore it because I feel that people were good, even men did not tease or laugh at us, they did not have any bad feelings either.

That dress was a little uncomfortable, because we girls could not bend or turn around fast but we didn’t see it as a problem. We even played sports in the mini. I started to wear the mini when I was 12 years old. I got married at 21. We could obtain cloth and rations under the coupon system introduced by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government. For each Cloth Coupon we could only get two yards of ‘cheeththe’ (floral printed cloth) and from the another coupon card we could get a Nylex Saree and two yards of school uniform materials. That was all. Since two yards was never enough for a school uniform, we used to wear the ‘cheeththe’ mini dress to school and this was not a problem at school.

38
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Velayudan Jayachithra
Chithra is a programme officer - Media, at Women and Media Collective.

Language

In the early ’70s, it was a very difficult era for us – we were always lacking in food and clothing. It was also a period that insisted on self cultivation and home gardening for food. The mini became a fashion trend because we had to make do with a tiny piece of cloth. So everyone began to wear this and it became fashionable to wear the mini. It was also during this time that the song “Aarichchi Borichchi” became popular. “Aarichchi Borichchi Andinna Mini Gowma Andinna” And so we wore the mini, always above the knee. Even though I wore the mini, I never faced any sexual harassment on the street. There was no people carrying any camera phones and taking photos of us. As girls and boys we would hang out together as friends and the mini was never an issue. But I think today it is bit difficult to wear this dress and walk on the streets due to some conservative men and boys who create problems. Although we are living in urbanized cities, people look at us very differently. It is difficult for a girl to wear this dress and walk on the streets, because of the lewd behaviour by men on the streets. Our children today are more under our control and have lost the freedom that we had earlier, because we do not know what will

happen. Even though we send them out, we keep our eye on them for the sake of their safety. Nowadays, people are very different. In the mini we could travel wherever we wanted to. As friends, we did shopping together, we walked to Nugegoda, sometimes we went to work and then to the cinema after that in our mini dresses. When we girls and boys went to the cinema sometimes we would plan and wear the mini together and the boys also dressed in their suits and would come with us as a gang. Those old ‘Cheeththe’ fabrics are really beautiful, unlike the latest designs.

Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Through this interview we can see how women and girls enjoyed their right to move freely without harassment even though they were clad in the mini dress. This is starkly different to the situation today, in which the patriarchal society we live in has begun to control women’s attire in order to “protect” women from harassment and violence. Women victims of violence have often been blamed for the violence and harassment they face simply due to the clothes they were wearing at the time of violence. The question I would like to raise here in this regard is: “has any woman ever sexually harassed a man when they have worn clothing that exposed their chest or their thighs?”

39

Is Islam Inherently Misogynistic?
An Interview with Laleh Bakhtiar Laleh Bakhtiar, USA

As the first American woman to translate the Quran into English,
Laleh Bakhtiar corrects often misinterpreted verses on women’s treatment by re-infusing the translation with a feminine perspective. In this interview with Muslima curator Samina Ali, Laleh discusses her experience interpreting the Quran.
IMOW: You are such an incredible spiritual force that I’m not even sure where to begin. You’ve written and translated a combination of 25 books about Islam. In 2007, you published the first translation of the Quran by an American woman, The Sublime Qur’an. As a woman translator, much less an American woman, you must have known you would face criticism. What compelled you to translate the Quran? Laleh Bakhtiar: In the year 2000 I was beginning to write a history of early Islam, just covering the life of the Prophet. I had written the history text when I sat back and realized that you can’t write about the history of early Islam without including the Quran. I had reviewed all the available English translations of the Quran and found each of them to have a problem. They were not consistent in the translation of the same Arabic words when the context allowed. The Arabic language has gender

40
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

The feminine perspective is extremely important, because no one has paid attention to it in any of the translations of the Quran into other languages. So it is very easy to misinterpret the role of women in Islam, or ignore it!
specific pronouns and this was not indicated in the translations. Little attention was paid to the grammar of the Arabic words when translated into English. Most of the translations contain interpretation in

Language
the translation, so you are not able to find an exact Arabic word for an English word. Based on my having studied Quranic grammar at Tehran University in the Ph.D. program as well as with a private Egyptian teacher for several years, I realized that I had to do my own translation. Why was it so important to you to incorporate a female perspective? The feminine perspective is extremely important, because no one has paid attention to it in any of the translations of the Quran into other languages. So it is very easy to misinterpret the role of women in Islam, or ignore it! One place where you specifically bring in an alternative perspective is in Chapter 4, Verse 34, which speaks to how husbands should treat a rebellious wife. The common translation of the Arabic word daraba has been to “beat” or “hit.” In short, the verse states that a rebellious woman should first be admonished, then abandoned in bed, and ultimately “beaten” unless her behavior improves. It’s an unfortunate translation that has been abused by some men. You translate the word differently. Can you explain your translation and its significance? The words “beat them (f)” in Chapter 4 verse 34 have denied Muslim women their rights given in the Quran for almost 1500 years. Muslim women have challenged it in articles, essays, lectures, and books, but none have translated it in a complete translation of the Quran the way the Prophet understood it as shown by his behavior until I was blessed to translate the Sublime Quran. Islam teaches that whenever a person becomes aware and conscious of an inconsistency in Islamic teachings, he or she must speak out. I along with so many Muslim men and women are continuing to do so in regard to this issue. I will now give you the irrefutable reasons why the interpretation of “beat them” in 4:34 is wrong. However, let me first state firmly and clearly that I am not speaking about the Arabic of the Quran. That is the eternal Word of God revealed to the blessed Prophet. It is how Muslims have interpreted the Word of God that is at issue. First of all, it is a command, an imperative form of the verb, in the Quran. When it is interpreted as “beat” the Prophet did not carry it out. This serves to denigrate the blessed Prophet as if he sanctioned God’s command but refused to carry it out. While the same word, idrib, also means “go away,” jurists over the centuries have refused to understand the word the way the blessed Prophet understood it as his behavior indicated when he was confronted by issues of domestic unrest. Yet when we revert the interpretation of “beat them (f)” to “go away from them (f)” we have elevated the blessed Prophet and can add another command of God that he carried out. Therefore the interpretation must return to the way the Prophet understood it by his behavior. The part of Chapter 4 verse 34 in question is typically translated in English as: “Those husbands who fear disobedience on the part of their wives, first admonish them, then abandon their sleeping places, then beat them.” My position is that the understanding of this verse must revert back to the interpretation given it by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and the mercy of God be upon him, through his actions. He never beat anyone

41
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Language
much less any of his wives. When there was marital discord between himself and his wives, he went away. Anyone who claims to follow the Sunnah [practice] of the Prophet must do the same thing, because the Sunnah of the Prophet is not to beat, hit, hurt, spank, or chastise any woman. Therefore the Sunnah of the Prophet is not “to beat them (f)” but “to go away from them (f)” or “to leave them (f).” The word daraba or its imperative form in verb form I, idrib, has 25 meanings. Why take a meaning that harms someone when the Prophet did not do it? When you got to this particular verse, you had already been working on the English translation for two years. Yet you nearly dropped the project. Why? I knew that the God that I loved would not have allowed husbands to beat their wives. If I had not been blessed to discover the contradiction in the Quran itself that shows understanding it as “beat” creates a manmade contradiction, I would not have been able to continue with the translation. I think the bottom line is that the verse is not a license for battery. The verse is meant to bring harmony back into a marriage, not increase discord. In that same vein of creating harmony: you translate the Arabic names into English as well. Moses, not Musa. May, not Maryam. Jesus, not Isa. God, not Allah. Why do you think this will help non-Muslims in their understanding of Islam? I believe in speaking to people in their own language. When you refer to the Prophets with their English names, you strike a similar chord with them, and they are amazed that Muslims believe in many of the same Prophets who are mentioned in the Jewish Scripture as well as the New Testament. Some may not know this from your lengthy vocation as a writer and translator, but you were raised Catholic. What do you think was your “eureka” moment, the moment you first knew you might convert? Actually, I am not sure I am a convert or even a revert. It seems to me that I was always Muslim, but just did not know it. My father practiced Islam as a youth, before he became the first US trained Iranian physician to return to Iran in 1931. He was 67 years old when I was born, and after he and my American mother were divorced, he fathered 10 more children. I grew up in America with my mother and never knew him until much later in life, when I moved with my husband and two children to Iran. It was then that I learned about Islam, and realized I had always believed what Islam taught without knowing it. After your conversion in 1964, you wore the headscarf. In fact, you only took if off after 9/11. Why was that? I was divorced two years before the Iranian revolution in 1979. The Iranian court awarded me my three children. When the revolution came, I only had a means to support my children and myself in Iran. A law was passed that all women had to wear the hijab. It began as a following of a country’s law, but I grew to love wearing the hijab because it helped me discipline myself. Later I moved back to the US and when I became post-menopausal, the Quran said that I did not need to be so careful. My children lived in three different states in the US, and none of them lived in Chicago where I worked. I had to travel by air to visit them. I found when I got on

42
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Language
the plane, everyone looked at me with great fear in their eyes. One of the main objectives of the hijab is not to call attention to yourself. I found that I was doing just that so I stopped wearing the scarf, but to this day I still only dress modestly. To all the women reading this, regardless of their faith, what is the bottom line? Is Islam a sexist, patriarchal religion? Not in my view. I find Islam liberating! The question has to do with free will. As it is interpreted in the West, it means the freedom to do whatever you want to do when you want to do it. This is not free will, but pursuing our own desires. When we pursue our own desires, we are following our passions (as opposed to our reason). Our passions are known as “the animal soul” (nafs al-amarah). It contains two aspects: lust and anger—qualities we share with animals. If we choose the Western interpretation of “free will” and the pursuit of our own desires, we are following our animal soul, not reasoning with ourselves but following our instincts which have been programmed by God’s will. If we choose the Islamic interpretation of “free will,” we freely choose to follow God’s guidance and do what God enjoins us to do and prohibit what God asks us to prohibit. You’re the first woman to translate the Qur’an. What are examples of what some other up-and-coming female scholars are doing? Muslim women are engaged in all areas of activities, bringing people to consciousness about the role that they play in the Islamic community. This includes Muslim women scholars as well as activists. It is amazing overflowing of presence! In your opinion, what can the next generation of women do to help create the equality and justice that was originally intended for them by the Quran? Their most important job is to reform Islam from within, not from without by incorporating a western type of feminism on their faith. If we firmly believe that Islam grants us equality and justice, then we need to work for it from within.

This piece was originally published by the International Museum of Women in their Muslima: Muslim Women’s Art & Voices exhibition. Visit the exhibition at muslima.imow.org. See http://muslima.imow.org/content/islam-inherentlymisogynistic

Now online:
http://options.womenandmedia.org/

Other material related to the theme of this issue used in the OPTIONS Webzine
Video
You tube video of a performance poet Katie Makkai exploring the tyranny of the word “pretty” and taking it from an oppressive adjective to an intensifier http://www.youtube.com/watch?v= M6wJl37N9C0

Audio (Tamil)
Ms. S. Jayanthi residing in Colombo 6, speaks of her memories of wearing the ‘mini gowma’ (mini) in the 70’s, Sri Lanka. In this audio clip Jayanthi shares her feelings about freedom, society and security for women in relation to dressing the mini then and now.

43
Choice is Power | OPTIONS 2013

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful