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Interview with Hafsah Muheed - Sri Lanka



Hafsah Muheed

Hafsah Muheed is an intersectional feminist, human rights advocate, and development and sustainability practitioner with over seven years of grassroots experience on gender, wellbeing, climate change, and human rights. She is involved in many different organizations currently, and she founded her own organization known as ‘Amplifying Impact’. Currently, she is working towards greater sustainability in apparel manufacturing by managing diversity and inclusion. Throughout this process she has focused on individuals with disabilities, women’s empowerment, climate change, and sustainable development. She completes this task for 12 “business units” and communities in Sri Lanka, along with Jordan and Indonesia. When asked what ignited her pursuit for gender equality, she states that she was made aware of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) of Sri Lanka at a young age, entailing that her rights were consistently violated. Following this event, she spent more time learning about her surroundings and focused on aiding those who could not speak up about their issues.


Gender Equality Statistics (Sri Lanka)

In Sri Lanka, the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments is 5.6%.

The proportion of women aged 20-24 years who were married or in a union before age 18 is 9.8%.

The unemployment rate of women is 6.9% and 3% for men.

The adolescent birth rate is 21/1000 women aged 15-19 years.

4.1% of women are subjected to physical and or sexual violence in the previous 12 months.

74.3% of women have their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods.

Proportion living in poverty: men: 2.3%; women: 2.5%

The proportion of mothers with newborns receiving a maternity cash benefit: 29.4%.

The suicide mortality rate (deaths per 100,000 population) is 6.2% in women and 22.3% in men.



This interview was organized and conducted by Thuy Duong Le, Zevin Sanchez, and Abby Harris. Ha Nguyen, Shobe Manuel, Sheridan Smith, Nolan Ratsabouth, Sophia May, Aidan Duffield, Maddie Comeaux, and Chloe Truong contributed with their insightful questions. All of them were members of the John V. Roach Honors College (Texas Christian University) and attended the "Cultural Contact Zones: Asia" class, which was offered by the John V. Roach Honors College in the Fall 2023 semester.


 

Interview with Hafsah Muheed (20 September 2023)

 

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

What are the most common stereotypes about women in Sri Lanka?


Hafsah Muheed:

One of the most widespread stereotypes that women in Southern Asia, including Sri Lanka, face is the perception that they are oppressed. This stereotype portrays them as individuals who does not have choices in daily lives. While some choices are not available, the stereotype of illiteracy is inaccurate especially with a country having an extremely high literacy rate.


Ha Nguyen:

What are some of the main challenges faced by women in Sri Lanka today? How can individuals and organizations, such as Amplifying Impact, help address these issues?


Hafsah Muheed:

One of the significant challenges Sri Lankan women face is discriminatory family laws. Being a small island nation, Sri Lanka has been influenced by various colonial powers, including the Portuguese, Dutch, and English. Consequently, the country still uses legal framework influenced by colonization. These foreign legal concepts, alien to the country, have introduced many stringent restrictions.

Sri Lanka operates under four different laws: the general law, a separate law for the Tamil community from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka the Thesawalamai law, a law specific to the Kandyan community currently which governs aspects of marriage, adoption, transfer of property, and inheritance and the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) restricts the freedom of consent, permitting the marriage of Muslim women and girls.

The biggest challenge is that these laws are upheld by the Constitution. There is a critical need to reform these laws.  For instance, women still do not have direct access to land. Sri Lanka has suffered a 30-year civil war during which many men were involuntarily involved. Consequently, many women are now widowed or have missing family members. Such women face socio-economic challenges due to inability access their family land. For country where from the agricultural workforce, 40% are women, many of them do not own the lands they cultivate. This hinders their financial stability and autonomy.

Abortion is still criminalized in Sri Lanka. It is only accessible if the mother's life is physically endangered. In Sri Lanka, a law known as the vagrant ordinance is in place, which criminalizes homosexuality. Despite its mild language, it still leads to legal persecution, particularly for transgender women. These are among the challenges women encounter in the country.

A significant amount of grassroots work is underway. Advocacy efforts are being made, such as seeking safe abortion services, currently unavailable in Sri Lanka. We have one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in Asia. Sri Lanka has managed to eliminate HIV and mother-to-child transmission. Furthermore, we have legalized maternal leave coverage and extensive maternal health services are available.

There's still more work to be done in the arena of gender equity concerning legal reforms due to persistent social stigma. Individuals and organizations should focus on legal advocacy. If laws change, services become available, and programs can then be implemented to counter social stigma and stereotypes.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Does the Sri Lankan government promote gender equality in schools? If so, how?


Hafsah Muheed:

This is an important question to consider when contemplating formal government action. For example, government representatives often claim during UN presentations that they advocate for gender equality in schools. However, the reality often doesn't match these assertions. Subjects such as gender equality, unconscious bias, and discrimination aren't formally addressed. These topics are seen as taboo and consequently aren't promoted within the education system.

For example, Sri Lanka does not provide comprehensive sex education. This creates a form of inequality as the pregnant individual typically bears the consequences. Given the high rate of teen pregnancies, this is an essential topic that is frequently overlooked. The government does not actively advocate for gender equality in schools. Questions regarding women in leadership roles and women in STEM fields remain unanswered.

Despite a higher number of female university graduates, their participation in the labor force remains low. This clearly indicates the absence of formal programs on gender equality in schools to enhance accessible labor markets and the need to recognize the informal and care economy of Sri Lanka which is led by women.


Duong Le:

Should schools encourage students to learn about and participate in movements supporting women from an early age? If so, how would this be beneficial?


Hafsah Muheed:

Schools should unquestionably allow students and others interested to participate in any movements, regardless of gender. It's crucial to teach young people how to mobilize, organize, prepare petitions, and contact local ministers or civil officers. This can fundamentally enhance their awareness on what their rights from an early age. It can also instruct them on the necessary actions if their rights are infringed.


Shobe Manuel:

What is the impact of misinformation on women, and what motivated you to initiate the Think Before Share campaign?


Hafsah Muheed:

The primary challenge we face regarding misinformation occurs when advocating for gender equity. Both misinformation and disinformation are intentionally used to prevent policy-level changes.

Currently, representation of women leaders in the political space, particularly in Parliament, is quite low. This is one of the many examples. Male candidates from other political parties or opposition parties face their own set of challenges, but women experience these challenges twofold. They also contend with the spread of intentional misinformation about their leadership styles, biases, and even their personal lives.

In a multicultural society like Sri Lanka, leaders are viewed from different perspectives, and societal expectations can color these views. The intentional spread of misinformation further complicates this scenario. Misinformation and disinformation about sensitive topics, such as safe abortion, has created strong bias fueled by misinformation.

This is why we are focusing on a campaign against misinformation. We want to empower bystanders to take action when they come across misinformation while using social media. But the question remains: What should you do when you come across misinformation that you can clearly identify?


Sheridan Smith:

What can we do individually to promote gender equality?


Hafsah Muheed:

Reflecting on our own biases is essential. Even though it may sound cliché, it's important to remember that even as we work in the gender equity space, and even as we serve as advocates and allies, we can still harbor our own biases. Our perspectives are shaped by our backgrounds and by the people and ideas we interact with and consume.

Understanding our unconscious biases is crucial, and we should consciously strive to identify these patterns. A resource that might be helpful is Harvard's Implicit Association Test (II aid). This self-assessment measures biases towards different factors such as body appearance, economic status, and skin color. You can take this test to identify your biases. This small step could serve as a starting point. As advocates, we engage in this process continually.


Nolan Ratsabouth:

Do you think that increasing the number of women in higher political positions could improve gender equality in Sri Lanka? Do you believe that the existing patriarchy could obstruct this progress?


Hafsah Muheed:

Political power can be beneficial, particularly in the context of patriarchy, a comprehensive system intertwined with capitalism that includes both public and private aspects. This system, established over years, cannot be dismantled immediately. Female leaders in power can help mitigate some of the negative effects of patriarchy, benefiting not just women, but also men.

Subtle power dynamics can indeed change. For instance, we once had a minister for women and children. However, with a succession of male leaders in recent years, that position was downgraded. It was removed from the Cabinet and reduced to a regular ministerial role. This shift greatly impacts the allocation of resources in a country.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Sri Lanka utilizes a quota system to encourage women's political participation. What is your opinion on this method?


Hafsah Muheed:

At present Sri Lanka has local government elections, provincial elections, Presidential elections, and parliamentary elections. The quota system is only applied to local government elections, also known as the Municipal Council. Similar to a city council in the States, it has a 25% quota. . The introduction of a reserved seat quota of 25% resulted in increased the number of women elected from 89 to 2,300 during the 2016 local elections.

I believe the quota system is necessary because it allocates resources based on urgency. This is similar to how medical emergencies are handled in a triage situation. For example, individuals requiring immediate surgery receive the most resources, while those with minor wounds are treated later.

Being a female political leader in Sri Lanka poses significant challenges which are financial and social barriers. The quota system helps in identifying competent women who are willing to run for office. However, hurdles often exist within the parties themselves, as they commonly fail to support female candidates. Therefore, negotiations with party leaders are essential to ensure women's inclusion in the quota system. Despite its challenges, it's a small yet positive step forward.

There's a common misconception that quotas automatically award women leadership roles in corporate spaces. However, it's important to clarify that these positions aren't simply handed to any individual. They are meant for qualified individuals. This misunderstanding is a frequently encountered bias.

In my experience, a quota system creates opportunities for women and enables them to qualify. So far, all the female leaders in Sri Lanka have come from backgrounds of privilege, with families involved in generational politics. We have yet to see a female leader who does not come from a political family background at the parliamentary level.

Here's an interesting fact to explain the constitutional barriers that exist in Sri Lanka: Only individuals of the Buddhist faith, the majority religion in the country, can legally become President. Therefore, despite any aspirations any young ethnic minority individual might have, they cannot legally become President because they do not belong to the primary faith, as stipulated in the Constitution.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

In the United States, and in some European countries, women in politics and female political candidates are often rejected due to a perception that they are too emotional. What are your thoughts on this? Are women truly too emotional to become leaders?


Hafsah Muheed:

It's also problematic that society tends to assign specific emotions only to women. Consider how many male politicians we see passionately expressing their views on TV. That's also emotional, but it's often not acknowledged as such. Anger is also an emotion and many male political leaders express it openly.  I believe being an emotionally intelligent leader can be beneficial. Take Jacinda Arden as an example. She's celebrated worldwide by all for her leadership style and its evident in how she led her country and now teaches leadership at Harvard, which attests to the fact. Men are also emotional. However, we are selective about the emotions we recognize. We often expect women to remain neutral while excusing the range of emotions displayed by other leaders.


Sophia May:

Was there a specific event or experience that inspired you to start Amplifying Impact?


Hafsah Muheed:

Amplifying Impact is a non-profit organization, founded when I was involved in community work addressing water and sanitation access. During this period, four women, assuming that I spoke one of Sri Lanka's native languages because of my shawl, approached me. They highlighted a significant problem; they did not have a "national identity card," a basic identification needed for survival. They explained that their situation was determined by the prevalence of child marriages in their community. Normally, identification cards are obtained at age 16, often facilitated by schools. However, due to their early marriages, they did not have these cards. This absence of crucial identification led to unexpected difficulties. I offered to assist by connecting them with legal aid and other resources. However, due to their marginalization and vulnerability, they were reluctant to accept formal support. They were worried that introducing formal assistance into their community could provoke further violence or bullying. This could potentially force them to leave their village and forfeit their current support system, exacerbating their situation.

I then realized the importance of informal communication. My experience with a specific project highlighted the significance of communication, leading to the inception of Amplifying Impact. This experience taught me that formal structures do not always yield the desired outcomes.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Could you share how old you were when you first started doing social work?


Hafsa Muheed:

I was 14. However, at that time, I was not familiar with the terms social work or volunteering. It was only when I was 19 or 20 that I became acquainted with these words. Waste management is a pressing issue in Sri Lanka, affecting people across all income levels. During my school years, irregular waste collection forced us to carry used menstrual pads in our school bags. Without lockers, we had to haul our bags and lunchboxes daily, which was a taxing routine for many months. Eventually, some of us girls voiced our concerns to the principal. Following that discussion, the school improved its waste collection system. In retrospect, this was my initial encounter with social work.


Abby Harris:

In your view, what has been the most influential or beneficial aspect of establishing Amplifying Impact?


Hafsa Muheed: 

What truly matters to me is the number of women I'm able to assist. I keep track of how many women I've helped and collect their stories whenever possible. At the moment, I have no funding. Instead, I smartly utilize my resources, existing network, and other communities. To date, the fact that I've managed to assist over 125 women without any funding and doing so single-handedly is what I find most remarkable. All this, whilst not being a formal organization.


Aidan Duffield:

What mentality and choices have helped you overcome gender inequality?


Hafsah Muheed:

You know, it has been about making my dreams a reality. Before gender equity was widely used as a phrase, I was already speaking out about it since it has been a reality. I have had to fight for the right to have a choice in my life. I've always been a loud person. People often told me, 'You're really loud!' or 'Lower your voice.' As a child, I would question, 'Why should I lower my voice?' and I just became louder about inequality and accessibility since issues like this are not commonly discussed in Sri Lanka, but I wondered why more people weren't addressing the problem of gender equality.


Ha Nguyen:

As a writer and poet focusing on human rights and women's rights, where do you find inspiration for your work? How do you perceive the power of creative expression in raising awareness about these issues?


Hafsah Muheed:

I draw inspiration from my surroundings. If I'm upset and feel powerless, I write. Writing has been my outlet, making journaling a form of venting for me. I believe creatives are incredibly influential. Those who create and produce creative content hold power because they tap into human emotions. Consider the numerous movies that have inspired you, brought you to tears, or stirred emotions—this is because everyone can relate to them.

With globalization, a person who watches a movie in Sri Lanka can discuss it with someone who watched the same movie in the US. We are emotional beings, and in the context of social issues, we can use creativity to connect with others, even across language barriers. Consider how many songs you enjoy that aren't in your language. That is a great example how creativity can use to change the narrative and create impact.


Shobe Manuel:

As a leader and ambassador for multiple campaigns, what skills do you value in fostering an inclusive and collaborative environment?


Hafsah Muheed:

Values are crucial. In any group I work with, the opening sessions, we first discuss these values before delving into our individual working styles. Getting to know each other through practice helps build synergy, a vital aspect, especially in remote work. Additionally, cultivating the skills of collaboration and active listening is essential. It's also beneficial to engage in exercises that promote understanding of intersectionality and personal biases.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

You mentioned values, which reminded me of several interviews we conducted last semester with African women activists. They shared that some, including African women, perceive gender equality as a foreign value. Have you encountered a similar perception in Sri Lanka when advocating for gender equality?


Hafsah Muheed:

Interestingly, many gender issues in our society are attributed to the aftermath of colonization. Before colonization, we were relatively free and open-minded, but many things have changed since then. It is fascinating to observe outsiders advising us to adopt gender equality and other progressive ideas. However, such concepts are often viewed as foreign at times. It is at that time the importance of understanding the core of gender equity, right to be yourself and having a choice is the reminder needed.


Sophia May:

What advice would you give to young girls who want to pursue their education but face obstacles?


Hafsah Muheed:

First, it's crucial to recognize that the ability to continue education is often a privilege, particularly for a girl child. This usually depends economically on whether your parents support it. If they don't, are you supposed to leave home? Do community centers exist where you can access education? Does your environment set support you. Many girls in humanitarian settings cannot access education even if they wish to pursue or have communities that support them. Existing education systems are disrupted by conflicts. Thus, such privilege must be taken into account.

Second, try to learn creatively. Learning isn't confined to classrooms. For instance, I acquired all my technical skills through volunteering. Despite having a degree in business administration, my technical expertise in areas such as gender budgeting, gender mainstreaming, climate change, disability, and human rights all originated from working with communities.  If one has the privilege to volunteer, highly recommend to do it.


Maddie Comeaux:

What kind of work does Sri Lanka Unites do? Why are peace-building and reconciliation essential for the youth of Sri Lanka?


Hafsah Muheed:

Sri Lanka endured a civil war that lasted three decades. Even after the war ended in 2009, a negative peace prevails, meaning the North and South remain divided. Through an initiative called Sri Lanka Unites, we hope to ensure that younger generations do not harbour these biases and instigate conflicts.

Across Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Unites has established eight reconciliation centers. Here, they conduct entrepreneurship sessions and have developed a curriculum focused on hate speech, peacebuilding, and other related topics. These subjects are covered through coursework. Once economic empowerment can increase prevent extremism or violent activism.

Sri Lanka Unites has evolved into Global Unites and has been established in 15 countries, including the United States. I served on the board from 2020 - 2023. It is an organization run by youth, for youth. During my tenure, being able to work with youth, children and the elderly in Sri Lanka, where I oversaw regional operations and donor relations.


Dr Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Conflicts are prevalent across all continents, and increasingly, organizations are advocating for women's involvement in peace building. I'm interested in your perspective on this. Why is the participation of women in peace building important?


Hafsah Muheed:

The Women, Peace, and Security Agenda recognizes the integral role of women in communities. Women often shape societal values by leading the care economy. Additionally, women interact with broader community networks. For instance, they often liaise with healthcare service providers to ensure their family's health, and they frequently attend parent-teacher meetings, thereby connecting with the education system. While it's important to acknowledge that fathers and other caregivers may also fulfill these roles, in contexts like Sri Lanka, these contributions are often trivialized or overlooked.

This has led them to build effective relationships with the community and are powerful influence. They play a crucial role in peacebuilding. We've discussed emotions previously, but it's also proven that women excel in learning, negotiation, and diplomacy more than men. These are scientifically backed traits. Women have the ability to engage at the community level and foster peace before conflict arises. This is why systems must provide autonomy for women in leadership and decision making.

In Colombia to support a network of women peacebuilders and women-led organizations committed to nonviolence and mediation. With members that spanned every sector of society, this network complemented the formal peace process as it got underway.  Women’s groups negotiated local ceasefires with armed groups and won the release of hostages. They pressured insurgents to lifts roadblocks and documented human rights violations. They protested budget priorities of local governments and sought solutions to drug trafficking and other illegal activity.  Some of these women were invited to the negotiating table for the Colombia peace talks in Havana.  One third of the table participants were in fact women.  Among other roles they were instrumental in ensuring that the concerns of the war’s victims were reflected in the reconciliation and accountability mechanisms in the final agreement. There are many such examples proving the need for formal inclusion of women in high level policy spaces focused on peacebuilding.

Such results were catalyzed by the landmark U.N. Resolution on Women, Peace and Security passed in October 2000, which affirmed the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and emphasized the importance of their equal participation and full involvement.

 

Maddie Comeaux:

Being an open and proud feminist in today's society can sometimes be challenging. What advice would you offer to girls, women, boys, and men who identify as feminists, yet may feel hesitant to express their views or participate in the feminist movement?


Hafsah Muheed:

The term 'feminist' often encounters numerous misconceptions, with some wrongly associating it with man-hating. So, how do we define a feminist? To me, it's about more than just women. It includes men and other gender identities, and it's about being free to do what we want, provided it does not harm others. That's my understanding of feminism. I may not agree with certain actions, but I respect individuals' rights to choose their paths. This issue is frequently raised globally. We have donors and funders who support gender equality but shy away from the term 'feminism.' So, you're not alone in your apprehensions. However, consider asking yourself why you identify as a feminist. I believe being able to answer this question will guide you.


Chloe Truong:

What inspired you to advocate for gender equality?


Hafsah Muheed:

I think it was my lived reality. Becoming involved was an unconscious part of my life, and I soon realized the privilege of speaking up. Not everyone can safely voice their opinions, and realizing my privilege made me want to amplify as many voices as possible.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho:

Hafsah, imagine waking up tomorrow as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. What is the first thing you would do with that power?


Hafsah Muheed:

I would reform the "Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of Sri Lanka".

 


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