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In this interview, Sharmila Seyyid, the Sri Lankan Tamil Muslim writer reflects on her novel Ummath that presents women’s yearning for freedom and dignity in a patriarchal society.
Women in conflict zones are victims; often, they are bystanders impacted by the conflict around them. Yet, women in conflict zones can also be survivors. They have their own agency, whether it comes to taking sides in the conflict or finding ways to survive it, and even thrive.
I recently got around to reading Ummath, Sri Lankan Tamil writer Sharmila Seyyid’s debut novel, which brings alive the stories of three women, Tawakkul, Yoga and Deivanai – with Tawakkul hailing from the country’s Tamil Muslim community (that Sharmila herself belongs to), and Yoga and Deivanai being Tamil women who join the LTTE, although for very different reasons.
It’s only in the last few years that I have become fluent in reading in Tamil, my mother tongue, and while I have been reading in a few different genres, I am especially keen to read work by contemporary women writers in Tamil. Reading Ummath made me regret the years I have lost, unable to read in my own language.
Chimamanda Adichie brought home to us unforgettably the dangers of the single story, and it’s true that though there is more work available in translation than before, many stories in Indian languages never make it to readers of other languages. (Thankfully, Ummath is now also available in English).
Written in a simple, lyrical prose that brings alive wonderfully the community’s unique spoken language (which is distinct from that spoken in Tamil Nadu), Ummath goes to the heart of what it means to be a woman in this world – caught in difficult situations, but constantly yearning, striving for a sense of autonomy and wholeness, even if never quite attaining it.
The novel’s most important character Tawakkul epitomizes it the best, caught as she is between the conflicting forces of her own desire to shine as a social worker, the demands of her autocratic boyfriend, the concerns of her loving family and the attacks of a conservative small-town Muslim community that feels threatened by women’s growing independence.
I reached out to Sharmila Seyyid for an interview, hoping to understand more about how she came to write this powerful novel, and was thrilled when she agreed. Based now in Colombo, Sharmila Seyyid hails from the small Eastern Sri Lankan town of Eravur, but had to flee to India, where she lived in Chennai from 2013-15. The reason? Her comments on the reality of sex workers’ lives angered conservative elements in the Sri Lankan Tamil Muslim reality, and a vicious campaign was orchestrated against her.
Today, she continues to work as a social worker (“writing and social work are my twin passions”, she tells me over the phone), with her focus being sustainable livelihoods for conflict-affected women and their families.
What follows is the email conversation we had, lightly edited.
At what stage of your life did you first identify as a writer?
When I was nine or ten, I found that I could write! It was not a supportive or encouraging environment. I had no acquaintance with writers and no one in my family had a reading habit. It was then seen as a crime. Voices were raised at me, that I was wasting my time, and not focusing on my studies.
There are many parallels between your own life, where you faced threats and attacks from Muslim fundamentalist groups, and the heroine of your novel Ummath, Tawakkul, who faces attacks simply for being a woman who dares to go out in the field as a social worker. How did you navigate from the personal to the fictional?
There are many women living in our society like the Tawakkul of the novel Ummath. The injustices that have occurred to me every day are what happen to any woman in a conservative environment. Our women are cruelly punished for wanting freedom. Ummath originates from the references in my diary. I wanted to record the injustice that happens to women who speak and also to those who do not come forward to speak. It seemed like a relief to my wounds then.
I could not move on to the next level without healing my wounds. I get rid of the rejections that happened to me by writing Ummath. The Ummath novel helped me move to the next level of life and writing.
One is the things I found most interesting in your novel is the sense of how the home is not necessarily a safe space for women, whether emotionally or even physically. Without giving away too much of the plot, some of your characters face severe as well as physical emotional abuse from their own families. Did you make a conscious decision to focus on this?
In reality, homes are not safe for women. Today’s houses are places where men rule women. Women have to wait for men’s permission to achieve their most earnest desires. Perhaps this corona pandemic and lockdown shows it the most clearly. The COVID-19 lockdown is a time of high domestic violence not only in Asian countries, but also in European and American countries. In most households, women have no prestige or dignity at all. They live as mere working machines and sex objects and childbearing machines.
Most sexual assaults on women take place at home and with relatives. Women are raped even by their own fathers. This is because of the structure in which the female is viewed as a sexual object. How can houses in this structure become safe for women?
How have things moved for Sri Lankan Muslim women in the last decade, especially those in smaller towns and villages, when it comes to issues such as access to education and the right to a livelihood? Are you optimistic?
The education system available in Sri Lanka is not an education system that can create self-actualization. We are compelled to speak of change in the context of an education system, which does not enable either a woman or man to think and act on his or her own.
It is men, who both at home and outside take decisions around Muslim female education. Most fathers decide what their daughter will achieve in the future. Many rural and urban parents have gone to any lengths to see their daughters become Mullahs. As their daughters become clerics they are expected to become better family women and live as the husband wants. They are expected to have as many children as the husband wishes. Madrasas use the madness of parents who believe that they can attain paradise by turning their daughters into Maulavis.
As far as the Muslim community is concerned, even education women in many fields do not have independence. The reality here is that they may need the permission of the husband even to spend their own income. There may be some exceptions but for most women, education here does not offer a rescue.
The circumstances remain frustrating and dissatisfying. Yet, I act with confidence. I believe that while no positive changes can be seen in my time, the women of the future should live freely with dignity in society.
In Sri Lanka today, as communities still grapple with the aftermath of the decade long conflict and many unhealed wounds, do you believe a greater role for women in politics can help move towards reconciliation?
I firmly believe that. Women should be in places where they have the power to make decisions. We are still in a time when women are being criticized as unfit to be in politics despite being a society that has developed in education and technology. Men can only create wars. They cannot resolve conflicts.
Are you working on anything in the literary space currently? What can we look forward to next?
I recently finished writing a piece of non-fiction. This is related to the suicide attack carried out by Islamic extremists on churches and star hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday in April 2019.
I have written this as a collection of conversations and incidents about the rise of religious extremism among Muslims living as a minority on a small island like Sri Lanka. The book described the backgrounds of Muslim youth joining the ISIS extremists and also the Sinhala chauvinism’s oppression of Muslims. I have created this work from my own personal and professional experiences.
Chatting casually over the phone after this email exchange, Sharmila Seyyid tells me of the second wave of Covid-19 cases in Sri Lanka at this month, aided in part by political rallies for the upcoming Parliamentary elections that flouted safety norms. It occurs to me as that as long as politics is such a male bastion, health can only continue to be a secondary concern to the acquisition of power.
While Sharmila is not affiliated full-time with any one organization, she works as a consultant and resource person with multiple NGOs working for women’s empowerment and livelihoods, especially women from minority communities and now, plantation worker communities as well.
Ummath brings together her lived experiences as a social worker, as a Tamil Muslim woman as well as her deeply held beliefs about the women of this island nation and the role they must play to move it beyond conflict. We need more such women’s voices that illustrate both the toll conflict takes on women, and their resilience to move ahead.
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