Inter-religious Panelists – Three women each speaking from the heart of her own religious tradition: left to right: Mrs. Jezima Ismail (Muslim), Dr. Selvy Thruchandran (Hindu), (Dr. Pathma Ratnayake (Buddhist), Marini de Livera (Catholic moderator)

This session was chaired by Marini de Livera, whose gracious introduction of each panelist set the tone for a rich sharing among the participants. Each panelist spoke for 15-20 minutes followed by a short “Q&A”session.

I. Dr. Pathma Ratnayake — a Buddhist perspective on feminism and women’s rights:
The Buddha did not make a difference in equality between women and men – even though his society considered women to be inferior. Although Buddhism does not restrict educational opportunities or religious freedom for women, it is difficult to give women true equality as stated in Buddhist doctrine because of different factors in society. Marriage was regulated by civil law only when the Dutch came to Sri Lanka; before that, under Buddhism, women had freedom regarding marriage and divorce.

It is through parenting and family relationships that Buddhism is passed on and extended to wider groups – to all sentient beings and the care of society. If one can live a good family life, that goodness will be extended into the whole community. Through the practice of mindfulness and compassion in the family, one is able to work towards one’s own enlightenment. An “engaged Buddhism” brings Buddhism into every aspect of life as one aspires to reach real freedom which is liberation from all forms of bondage. The Buddha was the first emancipator of women. He gave them equal status with men in their spiritual endeavors.

Summary of the Discussion: There were questions and discussion about 1) religious hierarchy in Buddhism, especially with regard to the “rules” governing the order of Bikunis. Why are there more precepts for the Bikunis than for the monks? Steps have not been taken to re-establish this order of female Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. In the face of male opposition, this task must be done by the women. 2) Care for all sentient beings is still strongly practiced in rural areas, where people still live in an extended family. 3) The contribution of Buddhist women to peace in Sri Lanka is found in the rural society where all live amicably together. 4) It is difficult to talk about the Buddhist attitude toward body, sexuality and the impact on women. Buddhism considers husband and wife equal but social norms accord better treatment to the man. When religion becomes institutionalized, much or the original revolutionary ideas fall away – most Buddhists do not know the original, pure doctrine of the Buddha.

II. Dr. Selvy (researcher and writer, a radical feminist doing research in gender and religion with projects on peace training and education.) — a Hindu perspective on Reimagining Women, Marriage and Family Life feminism and women’s rights: Dr. Selvy asked us to reflect on what this topic really means. She shared that Hinduism is a very complex concept; very diverse and difficult to understand – including as to what kind of Hinduism is being practiced. The fundamental principle of Hinduism is that the soul is bound by desire and must be liberated and become one with God. However, there are different understandings about how to express this fundamental principle.

Hinduism never succeeded in eliminating the caste system in India. In terms of women’s rights and feminism, women who are in a low caste have more freedom – they can divorce, live together, and do not follow rigid restrictions regarding women’s body. However, women in a higher caste face more rigid strictures regarding their body such as “sati” and boundaries surrounding chastity. In the course of history, men from a low caste began to put these high caste values on women. Hinduism never impacted the social structure to achieve gender equality but things are gradually changing.

“Reimagining” women, marriage and family life in Sri Lanka must take into account the situation of war and the tsunami. The dislocation of homes and loss of relationships have put increasing burdens on women and completely radicalized the social reality of women as the head of the family – she has no home, no privacy, must look after children and deal with the trauma. Within this context, how do we look at the situation of women, and women’s rights?

The emergence of new religious movements has affected Sri Lankan women’s participation in religion. Traditional religions are not meeting the needs of women and they search for alternate rituals. Because women are allowed to go out of their houses for religious purposes, they are becoming more mobile and feel liberated. This is a “radicalization of the social reality.”

Summary of the Discussion: The discussion centered on whether women can transcend the on-going ethnic conflict? This was answered in the affirmative. Women have transcended ethnic conflict; they don’t take sides and are against the war. Another question focused on differences in the practice of Hinduism in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.
In Sri Lanka, Brahmanism is practiced including caste system but no dowry system. The caste system is a South Asian phenomenon. Islam and Hindu fundamentalists want to control women. On the new religious movements that are associated with the New Age movement, she explained that the new religious movements attract women as these give women more opportunities and they want to try something new. When Pushpa commented that these new religious movements are seen as extensions of Hinduism and not a break from it, Dr. Selvy said that as a researcher, she did not want to make judgements but even in the new movements, there are patriarchal practices so she could not say if women were liberated by joining these movements.

III. Mrs. Jezima Ismail — an Islamic perspective on feminism and women’s rights: Mrs. Jezima Ismail prayerfully began by calling on the merciful, beneficent God . . . “May peace be upon you.” This is an emotional time because Sri Lanka is in agony; the country is bleeding and the country is divisive. According to the Islamic perspective, religious leaders have the power to address this and enable empowerment in women’s lives. There is a need to reimagine religion. Mrs. Jezima Ismail spoke about some of her early life background and shared that her faith outlines what she practices in daily life – submission to Allah and to establish peace between my brothers and sisters.

If she were to do some “reimagining,” she would say to Islam leaders: we are standing on a bridge. On one side is Allah and the Koran; on the other side is oppressive Islam. The question and challenge is how to reconcile these two sides.

Gender equality is a most contentious issue in Islam. It is necessary to return to the heritage of Islam and see what is there in terms of process, methodology, normative values, Sharia, and the life of the Prophet. Gender equality was very important for the Prophet. She read a series of verses from the Koran and how they are both interpreted and misinterpreted. She cautioned that one cannot do an “ad hoc” interpretation. There needs to be a fresh interpretation which is done through the eyes of justice. The thread that goes throughout the Koran is social justice; the only superiority recognized in the Koran is righteousness.

Jihad is a concept pregnant with meaning; it is not a bloody war. One’s conscience is fashioned by the way one speaks and talks. There is a wrong image of Muslims as terrorists; the community is responsible for images.

Mrs. Jezima Ismail ended her presentation calling us to solidarity as: “Women like us – bonded in passionate love for the Creator.”

Summary of the Discussion: Clarification was asked regarding polygamy.

She said that it was in the context of war and the Koran read in totality argued that one should marry a few only when he can love all equally. She understood polygamy as a condition that promotes the common good. Extremism is on the rise but the Arabic clothes of Muslim women comes from the extremist, which is not Islamic. She hopes to see a reimagining and the reformation of Islam. An Islam that is based on righteousness and not on the teachings that is from those who do not have faith. Asked how religion can contribute to the resolution of the conflict in Sri-lanka, Mrs. Ismail said that the 5 principals of Islam are very important, there are the precepts to help her choose right from wrong. She has a lot of hope in her religion and in God.

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