By Ruwan Laknath Jayakody
Misogyny is a very potent prejudice, a heady brew of fragile egos and colossal insecurities, delusions of power and wounded machismo, inflated narcissism and unrepentant ignorance, with the fear of female sexuality acting as the piston jackhammering the molten core of the nucleus of social order, the rubric of the family; the effects of which are akin to a Molotov cocktail. The concept of possessing the autonomy to articulate one’s existence as being one, that all human beings, including females are born with, seems alien to a group of Muslims, specifically three Lankan citizens claiming to be religious leaders representing the Islamic clergy.
Victims and culprits
For example, Maulavi/Mullah Niyas Siddeeq Siraj, against whom the Women’s Action Network, acting on behalf of female Local Government (LG) candidates contesting from the Puttalam District on the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) ticket, namely Cader Ibrahim Rinoosa, S. Rasika Udayangani (Tamil) and Bisliya Bhutto (also the Coordinator of the SLMC’s Puttalam District Women’s Congress), have complained in writing to the Election Commission (EC) on 18 January 2018. As is most often the case, the herded follow the herd and so the beta males follow the alpha’s twisted trail and appetite for dominance and subjugation. In the wake of Niyas’ public statements, two other Muslim leaders eddying the terrain of the Quran and the Hadith, one going by the name of Abbasi (based in Puttalam) and another by the name of Abdul Jabbar Mohamed Azeem, have echoed and reiterated sentiments similar to those of Niyas. The latter is reported to belong to the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath (SLTJ), specifically the Jamiuth Thowheedh Thihari (the latter standing for Thihariya). He is also reported to run a Madrasa (Islamic educational institution) and a media unit called the TMC, both located in Thihariya.
Incidents and analysis of applicable legal regime
Niyas, in sermons delivered on or about 5 January this year, from the Jamiuth Thowheedh Mosque in Thihariya, video clips of which are circulating online on social media, has expressed disgust at females contesting in the LG Elections around the corner and claimed that the women in question are sinners and of loose morals, ridiculed and shamed the males in the candidates’ families for allowing them to contest and also the political parties for accommodating Muslim women, and issued a clarion call to the society, specifically to the Muslim community, to correct (as the butler in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining would put it) the women candidates.
The second republican Constitution of Sri Lanka of 1978 provides answers to the question of females contesting at polls. Article 12(1) of the Constitution guarantees the right to equality and provides equal protection of the law while Article 12(2) of the Constitution further provides for the freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex and political opinion, among other such grounds. Simply put, if men are allowed, so should women be allowed.
Article 14(1)(g) of the Constitution allows for one to engage on one’s own or in association with others, in any lawful occupation and seeking to be an elected representative of the people comes well within this category.
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (soft law) and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, hard law; to which Sri Lanka is a State Party), both hold that everyone shall have the right and opportunity to directly take part in the government of one’s country and in the conduct of public affairs.
Back in Sri Lanka, Article 12(4) of the Constitution states that special provisions may be made by way of law, subordinate legislation or executive action for the purpose of the advancement of women. In this respect, Section 27F(1) of the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 16 of 2017, which is an affirmative action, holds that the total number of women members in each Local Government body (Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas) shall not be less than 25%.
The law then is clear about women contesting. Is this spewing of bile by Niyas and company, mere political posturing which is common at the time of elections or invective that is symptomatic of a more general malaise?
Singling out family members
Regardless, the singling out of family members of female candidates, in particular the males in their lives for shaming, thus making them lose face in the eyes of the community in terms of their reputation and social stature, is especially insidious, as although such is not the case in Sri Lanka at present, the causation of many an honour killing that has taken place in families belonging to tight-knit communities elsewhere in the world, again especially among those in Muslim communities, has similar origins.
The activist who penned the letter to the EC in this regard has derided the said public speeches as being discriminatory on account of one’s gender, and has deemed it as constituting hate speech that incites violent provocation against Muslim female LG Election candidates, impacting their safety and security and dignity including of their loved ones, adversely. The mobility of such candidates and even of their family members owing to being publicly targeted in such a manner, could be made restricted by virtue of such speech, therefore affecting free movement in a negative manner, in contravention of the freedom of movement enshrined in and guaranteed by Article 14(1)(h) of the Constitution.
The complainant therefore requests the EC to take immediate steps to initiate an inquiry in this regard and to ensure that the Police arrest the individual in question.
The complaint lodged via a letter sent to the EC highlights in particular an incident which took place on the night of 17 January 2018 where the Police had conducted a raid cum search operation for an illegal weapon allegedly hidden in the house of SLMC Puttalam District LG candidate Cader Ibrahim Rinoosa in Puttalam, by storming into the house in the middle of the night, following a phone call they had received on the 119 phone line. No such weapon had however, been found. Fellow SLMC LG candidate from the same District Bisliya Bhutto speaking to Ceylon Today said that the Police had also sought to find within the home, a black money notes printing operation, unsuccessfully. Who made the said call is not known. According to the said activist, Rinoosa’s office was subsequently subjected to an arson attack the following day (on 18 January 2018). Rinoosa has since halted campaigning, the activist explains. The activist who lodged the complaint with the Police desk at the EC Office in Rajagiriya, also said that the Thihariya Police were not willing to act on the said compliant, stating that they required that a written complaint be made at the Thihariya Police Station. The complainant also informs that the Head of the Police in charge of the LG Polls has also been notified of these incidents to no avail.
Additional Elections Commissioner M.M. Mohamed stated that the harassment of female candidates was a criminal violation as well as an election related offence. The damage however, is done. Bhutto explained, “The majority of our fellow SLMC female candidates are afraid to leave their homes or houses to go outside. We used to go together to campaign. Now there are only a few, a handful, a number which is also getting less and less, day by day, to go canvassing together, even on the basis of safety in numbers.” Niyas and the Secretary of the SLTJ, Abdul Razik were not available for comment.
On the other hand, one may argue as to whether the speech of Niyas and others falls within the realm of hate speech or whether it is constitutionally protected speech under Article 10 of the Constitution which enshrines the freedom of thought, conscience and religion as a fundamental right and Article 14(1) (a) of the Constitution holds the freedom of speech and expression including publication as a similar right.
If the law enforcement authorities, in this instance the Police, adopt a heckler’s veto approach when faced with such an instance where there is a clear lack of ‘imminent lawless action (as set out in Brandenburg v. Ohio),’ whereby the Police seek to prevent possible reactions from and on the part of the people, by restricting in prior, certain actions of and by the people, what such a practice exhibits is the imposition of a pronounced chilling effect upon the domain of expressions which fall within the ambit of what late Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (US), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in his dissent in US v. Schwimmer, advocated for, which is ‘not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.’
Elsewhere, writing on a certain central tenet of democracy, namely free speech, the late American jurist Professor Ronald Dworkin argued for a right to ridicule while opposing a right not to be insulted or offended. He railed against the “endorsement of the widely held opinion that freedom of speech has limits, that it must be balanced against the virtues of ‘multiculturalism,’ and that governments are right after all to propose that it be made a crime to publish anything ‘abusive or insulting’ to a group.” He pointed out that “religion must observe the principles of democracy, not the other way around. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be expressed any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one’s religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.”
That said, Article 19(3)(a) of the ICCPR however, holds that the right to hold opinions sans interference and the freedom of expression carries with it the special duty and responsibility of respecting the rights or reputations of others.
This raises another question. What if someone sought to with deliberate and malicious intent, outrage the feelings of any class of persons, insult or attempted to insult the beliefs of that class? In a joint statement cum declaration issued in February 2001 with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Representative on the Freedom of the Media, and the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression as signatories, it was noted that laws governing ‘hate speech’ should in consonance with international and regional law, at a minimum, conform to several guidelines, one of which states that ‘no one should be penalized for statements which are true.’
The present situation in the North Western Province, with regard to the treatment of female LG candidates, in that it is an unprovoked attack, is infinitely undesirable in a country that claims to be a bedrock of civilization (a contentious and highly subjective notion though). The fact of the matter is that it was however, inevitable and is bound to continue unabated in the face of; the ongoing blame game and finger pointing at the law enforcement authorities (the Police) and the regulatory authority (the EC) that is taking place at present with regard to the actual and perceived ineptitude on their part, almost bordering on the cliché; the continued apathy and negligence on the part of the political parties and their so called leaders to support the female candidates whom they have given nominations to; and finally the lack of any concerted effort from the judiciary (exercising the powers of suo motu, on its own motion) and on the part of the fourth estate (media), civil society organizations (excluding certain election monitoring bodies and observers who have attempted to shine a light on the issue; the absence of foreign observers at the upcoming LG polls too does not help), community based grassroots level organizations, religious organizations and the right thinking clergy, and the intelligentsia (assuming that they are not dead brown males nor live brown men afflicted by dead brown male syndrome), to counter the spread of this poisonous narrative. The time is nigh to trump trumped-up news.