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The Sri Lankan Muslim Women – Their Place in Society

An introductory note for the seminar discussion on the place of Sri Lankan Muslim
Women in Society.

One could observe that today all the world over there is a discussion on the place and role
of Muslim women. From Saudi Arabia to England and from France to China we come
across this debate. It is equally focused in both the Middle Eastern countries and the
other countries where there is today a substantial presence of Muslims. Understandably
the position of Muslim women in Western societies has drawn much attention.

It is pertinent to see how this has become the focus of attention in such a widespread
manner covering the different countries and cultures. The manifest reason is perhaps the
exclusiveness Muslim women exhibit or adopt in terms of the attire which covers out of
their religious needs. This exclusiveness in terms of attire and public behaviour raises a
great deal of interest in their exclusiveness especially in the context of in the process of
secularization which had prompted and encouraged avoidance of religion in civil life.

It is important to hear these considerations which in their own way create an interest in a
study of the place and role of Muslim women in the society within which they live.


Any analysis relating to the place and/or role of any particular group of people in their
societies should inquire into the functional roles they have within that society and the
place assigned to them in terms of the organization of the social group. This is quite a
fundamental aspect in the analysis of the social roles of individuals and groups for
instance a study of the youth problem would reveal that the nature and the characteristics
of that problem would vary from society to society depending on the vital question as to
how the youth are viewed within that society and the place they have in the family unit
and so on.

More important is a knowledge relating to the culture within which these people live. It
is a well known fact that all “living beings” whether human or animal, even the plants
live within known “cultural” background. Environment plays an important role. When it
comes to the human society, equally important are the faiths the values, and attitudes.
Looked at this way culture is the sum total of the environment, the gender, the modes of
productions, available in the societies, the social relationships, which arise out of the
production relations. Religion constituting the areas of faith and of a world – view,
values which arise out of socio- economic and religious interactions along with habits
and modes of behaviour fall within culture.

The discipline of sociology and anthropology demand us to take such all encompassing,
at the same time synoptic view of culture.
Thus an inquiry into the social role of women would imply an analysis of the cultural
norms of the society within which they live. Hence an analysis of the place and role of
the Muslim women would entail an analysis of the Muslim society, the norms it has
relating to women.

However we should exercise some caution in our understanding of the term culture
especially when we relate religion to culture. Thus societies which have the same
religion would have different cultural traditions; for instance Christianity in Western
society and in Indian and Sri Lankan society. An equally forceful example would be the
differences in the Hindu societies living in North India and South India. A book of North
Indian Hindu society would reveal the system of the PARDAH, associated with the
Muslims, in not confined to the Muslim alone. Thus we could see that even within one
religion these are social variations based on regional and historical factors.

Viewed in these terms an analysis of the Muslim society would have to be viewed at two
levels. The first one is that of the religious social norms that Islam stipulates.

The second would be the social changes arising out of modernization technolisation etc.
which enable an overall global conformity in human interactions.

Regarding the first Islam stands out as a religion very different from the other religious in
terms of the norms of rules and behaviour it stipulates.

A look at the Islamic society would show that irrespective of geographical spread of the
religion, there is a stipulation in terms of the organization of units of social evidence
within an Islamic society. Islam provides a guide line for the organisation and
functioning for each of the units – families, society and the state is true that in Hinduism
there are scriptural regulations relating to adoption of caste. Primarily a social
Institution, Islam is perhaps more specific and direct. It speaks of how the unit of family
should be organized and how it should function. Likewise it speaks of the brotherhood of
Islam “UMMAT” and finally about the principles that govern the state as an institution.
Thus, in Islam determines the human relations within the family, the society and the state.

The other major religions do not have such an all encompassing view of the social life of
its people.

This has given Islam and the Muslim society a sense of specificity. Environments may
differ even civilizations pattern may differ but not these prescriptive norms.

Therefore we are required to look into how a female is viewed within the Islamic society.
At this point it is important to realize that some of the environmental and social Factors
arising out of the area within which Islam was founded and developed first by the
Prophet himself.
The Arab society at the time of founding of Islam was composed of tribes which in terms
of geography and economy of the area had to be patriarchal. The position of women in
all partriarchal societies has been down graded because they could not play an effective
role in the functioning of those patriarchal societies. The human anatomy of the female
and her role in reproduction of life especially the nursing of the children in such
conditions necessarily imposed certain restrictions of behaviour between the male and the

[The position of women in agricultural societies had been different. In those societies she
was the first agriculturalist]

Thus in terms of the socio economic and cultural background within which Islam arose
and developed first there had to be status differences between the male and the female.
The exclusive dress stipulated for women should be understood in this background. It is
equally important to see the female dress in terms of the male Arab dress itself. The male
Arab costume covers the head and the body from shoulder to feet. There has been a
universalisation of this dress norm where ever Islam spread. But the regional variations
noticeably seen among Muslim societies in the tropical areas show that the concept of
“HIJAB” was accommodated within the norms of the tropical society. Thus in an
average TAMIL NADU or Sri Lankan Muslim household the females would use the
saree itself to be used as the “PURDAH”.

It is important to recall that the concept of “HIJAB” which Muslim women all the world
over practice with fevour today has been an effect of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

One could also observe that with modernization and with the spread of middle level and
higher education among Muslims women in our own countries (Sri Lanka, India) the
Muslim women are suitably changing their dresses without infringing on the concept of

Muslim women are today employed as Doctors, Lawyers, Teachers and clerks in
government services. The dress they wear while being compliant with the religious
norms does not hamper them in their public life.

At this juncture, reference should be made to the fact that in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri
Lanka Muslim ladies are occupying important positions in political life. Even in Saudi
Arabia the principle of female representation and the right to vote can now accepted.
Thus one has to be very careful in rushing to conclusions about the positions of Muslim
women. The religious norms relating to attire and behavior in the public arena have
been feasible enough maintaining none the less a balance between the religious norm and
the contemporary social needs.

Therefore the examinations of the place and role of the women should be viewed in terms
of the social norms it prescribes for the female especially as the life’s partners. Before
setting about to do this it is important to take into count the question of the socio
psychological satisfaction that the members of the group, whether family or other
institutions draw from their interactions. The sense of psychological satisfaction is very
essential to the continuity of the institutions and the tradition. It is true that the socio
cultural norms do condition the life of the people in terms of both acceptance and
expectations external conditions affect these norms. But the continuity socio
psychological factor is important. It is this satisfaction that enables a sense of belonging.
Keeping these facts in mind let us now go into the position of the female in Sri Lanka
Muslim society.

The female as the child, as the sister, as the bride, the wife, the mother, the mother-in-law
and grand mother has an integrated role in the day to day life and the over all continuity
of the family.

While on one hand the norms of patriarchy are widely prevalent it is also true that only a
family with a female child is considered worthy of being (“BARAKATH”) affluence
bestowed. A similar norm is prevalent in Hindu Tamil homes. It is normally held that a
female child helps enable the strengthening of the neculear family as a unit. It is worth
repeating here female education is a popular and sought for among the Tamils and the
Sinhalese. However at the school level the Muslim female child is expected to and is
given the right s to preserve its identity in terms of the attire it wears. It should be noted
the wide spread use of KAMEEZ and SHALWAR in Sri Lanka today tends to bring
about a certain sense of uniformity.

The position of the Muslim girl as a bride is quite interesting. The Islamic practice of
“MAHAR” is really in the tradition of the BRIDE PRICE found among the SEMITIC
TRIBES. But in Sri Lanka the Dowry is crucially important in getting educated young
men with prospects of highly paid jobs as bride grooms.

It is interesting to note that in the patriarchal tradition the residence of the couple is part
local. But in the case of Sri Lanka with heavy dowry the bride grooms generally lives in
the house of the bride.

More interesting is the KUDI system found among the Muslims of Batticaloa. The
KUDICCLAN is determined by matrilineal descent and marriages in the KUDI system
are exogamous. But this tradition is not found among all the Muslims of Sri Lanka.

In the matter of marriage conventionally it is the father of the bride who takes all
decisions. But today with availability of space for interactions, between young Muslim
boys and girls the love marriages have become an integral aspect of Muslim life.

It is significant to know that the Muslim bride/wife has her right to sue for a divorce this
right for seeking divorce is called “KUL-OO”.

The wife has a right to “KUL-OO” if the husbands develops deformities after marriage or
has habits which go against family living.

However this right is only very very seldom used.

The need to mention this is because there is a wide spread belief among the non-Muslims
that Muslim husbands are permitted to obtain divorce very freely and that they can get
married to four women. But within the Muslim society this cannot be done that easily at

It should be remembered that the request for either the “Kul-oo” or the “Thala” has got to
be made first as the “QUAZI COURT”. KUAZI are judicial officers inquiring into
problems related to marriage. They examine the cases in terms of the Islamic laws and
practices and pronounce the verdict. Sri Lanka “A KUAZI” has in his area of jurisdiction
the powers of a judge of the district court. The proceedings of the KHAZI court are open
to both parties.

It should also be noted that “TALAQ” is not that easily obtainable. There are in fact
three stages. There are chances of the husband and wife coming together again in the
first two stages.

On the question of marrying a second, third and fourth time it should be remembered that
the second marriage cannot be had without the consent of the first wife. Besides the
husband should be affluent enough to support each of them.

Anthropologically speaking polygamy has been a feature of Semitic tradition.

This type of marriage system in which a woman in eligible for re-marriage takes away
the concept of widowhood which Hinduism advocates. There again it should be noted
that among the many castes and tribes in South India widow re-marriage is an accepted

In regard to property rites in Muslim families’ sons are entitled to two shares and
daughters one share of the father’s estate. The wife is entitled for one-eighths of the
husband’s property.

It is true that there are some differences in claim to property.

In conclusion it is necessary to note that any analysis of the position of women of the Sri
Lankan Muslim society should be done at two levels.

a. at the level of a corporative analysis with the other ethnic group of Sri Lanka
b. in terms of the Islamic society outside the South Asian Countries.

- K. Sivathamby -